Qur’an translation of the week #75: The Qur’an in Kazakh – The First Saudi Qur’an translation for the Central Asia

With a population of around nineteen million people, Kazakhstan is the largest Central Asian state. Its official language, Kazakh, is the native language of some fifteen million people living both within Kazakhstan and beyond. Kazakh belongs to a Turkic language group of the Kipchak branch and is thus closely related to Kyrgyz, Karakalpak and Nogai. As is the case with most of the other Turkic languages of the former USSR, Kazakh has moved away from the use of the Arabic script to Cyrillic, and is currently undergoing a further transition into using Latin script (the officially approved schedule says this will be implemented between 2023 and 2031).

The first printed translation of the Qur’an into the Kazakh language appeared as recently as 1988, with the target text using the Arabic script. The translator, Halifa Altay (1917–2003), was born in East Turkestan (also known as Altishar) in the south west of Xinjiang, and fled China during the Kazakh exodus from Xinjiang to take up residence in Turkey (where he lived from 1954 until his move to Khazakstan in 1991). He was known as a writer, scholar and activist in the Kazakh diaspora movement, and produced a lot of material on the history of Kazakhstan and the Kazakh people. Having received a traditional Islamic education from religious schools in both Xinjiang and Turkey, Halifa Altay also had close connections with the Turkish religious establishment. After his return to Kazakhstan in 1991, he was also active there as preacher and national educator, and became a symbol of the Kazakhstan National Revival: one the biggest mosques in Kazakhstan, the Halifa Altay Mesheti (‘The Halifa Altay Mosque’) in the city of Ust’-Kamenogorsk, is named after him.

The first edition of Halifa Altay’s Kazakh translation was popularized by the author among the Kazakh diaspora in Turkey and Iran, while the second edition (1990) was printed by a local press in Almaty (the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, or KazSSR, at the time). This second edition was based on the Cyrillic script, on the basis that very few of its target audience were able to read Arabic script. In the same year, Halifa Altay visited the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Medina, where he stayed for two months to discuss and explain some of the exegetical choices he had made with the academic committee there. It seems that this stay was enough to ensure the KFQPC’s approval for his translation, to add to the approval he had already won from the Muslim World League. Following this, a third edition of the translation, prepared in 1990-1991, was published in Medina by the KFQPC. Dalilkhan Dzanaltay, one of the Kazakh diaspora leaders from Xinjiang who was living in Turkey at the time, is named in this edition as its editor.

The text of the third edition, which, like the second edition, was published in Cyrillic script, shows no signs of any serious interventions from the KFQPC. The edition contains a standard introduction from the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs, followed by an introduction by the author, the main text, and finally an index of terms used. The first page of the introduction differs slightly from that of the previous two editions: for example, a sentence on the place of the Qur’an in Arabic literary tradition that can be found in the 1990 Almaty edition is completely excluded, so that the whole paragraph begins with the concept of Qur’anic inimitability. The list of the sources used by the translator, however, has not been changed: in addition to works from the classical tafsīr corpus, one can find a number of post-classical works, from Ottoman ones such as ‘Rūḥ al-Bayān’ by al-Burūsawī, to various Tatar and Uzbek works produced in the twentieth century. In general, the style of the translation imitates that of a number of Turkish interpretations, for example, the well-known work by Ali Özek and other scholars widely known as ‘the Turkish Diyanet translation’ (Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Kur’an Meali), which has been repeatedly published since 1982. Thus, in conformity with the layout used there, the translation contains the Arabic text (based on the KFQPC edition), short introductions to the suras, the actual text of the translation with some insertions and additional commentary, and also notes on places where phrases are repeated in other suras. Some reviewers have observed that Halifa Altay mostly used vocabulary that would be familiar to members of the Kazakh diaspora, to the extent that there are some parts of the work that might be completely unintelligible to a native speaker of Kazakh born and bred in the former KazSSR.

When looking at the text from the perspective of exegetical choices and overall approach, the translation seems to tend towards the explanatory rather than providing a very literal rendition of the original Arabic. For instance, the translator renders the phrase ‘hunna umm al-kitāb’ in Q. 3:7 as ‘Solar Kitaptın negizgi irge tası’ (‘they are the basic meanings of the Book’) instead of ‘anası’ (‘mother meanings’) as is used in some later Kazakh translations. Furthermore, Altay’s rather metaphorical understanding of some verses, especially theological ones, generally differs from the more literary readings of the Qur’anic text to be found in other KFQPC translations of the Qur’an. For example, the word kursī (literally ‘throne’) in Q. 2:256 is interpreted by Altay as ‘bilimi’ (‘knowledge’). This has not passed unnoticed by some Salafi readers of this translation, and on the Saudi-run website Qur’an.Enc (probably the biggest collection of Qur’an translations available online) the unknown editor of Halifa Altay’s translation has added another explanation: ‘Alla tağalanıñ eki ayağına arnalğan orın’ (‘This is a place for both of God’s legs’), probably based on the tradition from Ibn ʿAbbās and Abū Mūsā al-Ashʿarī found in some tafsīrs.

Reprinted several times since, Halifa Altay’s translation of the Qur’an has played a big role in the religious revival in Kazakshtan. New translations, however, have challenged its authority much (especially that prepared by Muhammed Cingiz Qaci and Ermek Muhammed Qali and published by Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs in 2015), but it is noteworthy that the KFQPC has never printed any other Kazakh translation.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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