Qur’an translation of the week #80: A Tunisian translator’s Qur’an with a French artist’s illuminations- Ameur Ghedira’s Le Coran (Lyon 1957)

In 1957, Ameur Ghedira (1926–?), Lecturer of Arabic at the University of Lyon, France, published a new Qur’an translation with illuminations by the French painter and illustrator Jean Gradassi (1907–1981). The edition was printed by a local publisher on vellum paper with a print run of 607 copies, including a number of particularly prestigious collectors’ copies.

This was the first ever attempt to publish a French Qur’an translation that could match the beautiful decorations found in many manuscript and printed Arabic Qur’ans, but in a novel style that combined ‘Oriental’ motives with art nouveau flair. Previous French Qur’an translations had been unassuming and aesthetically unappealing, containing nothing but French text and lacking the decoration and embellishment of the text that is so often carefully implemented in Arabic Qur’ans. This was what Ghedira clearly intended to change, and his text is set in illuminated frames throughout the book, as well as featuring a hand-painted cover page that contains a somewhat inexpertly calligraphed Arabic title.

The translation by Ghedira, who was born in Monastir in Tunisia (which was then under French rule), and later graduated in Arabic studies at the Sorbonne, was the third French Qur’an translation in which a Muslim was involved. The first, by Ahmed Laïmèche and B. Ben Daoud (Oran, c. 1932), received no great attention. The second, by Ahmed Tidjani and the French non-Muslim Orientalist Octave Pesle (Paris & Rabat 1936), was more successful, and a third edition had been published by the time Ghedira wrote his. However, it is unlikely that either of these two translations were as popular or widely available in Ghedira’s day as the Qur’an translation by the nineteenth-century Polish-French Orientalist Albin de Biberstein Kazimirski (1808–1887).

Interestingly, Ghedira does not mention Kazimirski in his brief remarks on European Qur’an translations in his Introduction, in which he says that Savary’s (1782–3) translation was ‘fantasizing and superficial’ and that it was not until the 1930s that adequate French Qur’an translations published ‘to which, for the first time, Muslims contributed.’ He concludes by complimenting the translation by the French Orientalist Régis Blachère, the first volume of which had been published in 1949, and calls it ‘objective and knowledgeable.’

The difference between a non-Muslim and a Muslim perspective on the Qur’an clearly mattered to Ghedira who states in his brief introduction – which seems to predominantly address non-Muslim readers – that the Qur’an is a superhuman work, the word of God, not of Muḥammad, and the crowning achievement, perfection and completion of divine scriptures. Ghedira takes great care to emphasize the idea of the unity of the Abrahamic religions and expresses his conviction that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the same God. He furthermore defends the Qur’an against accusations that it promotes violence, misogyny and slavery by pointing out that its message was progressive in the context of the society to which it was revealed, and that there is a continuing need to interpret it in an evolutionary and progressive manner.

Given this need for interpretation, Ghedira argues that the Qur’an is practically untranslatable because its meaning is neither unambiguous nor fixed. To him, it is a living text meant to be recited, and translating it severely restricts its scope of meanings and makes it rigid and inflexible. The text itself cannot be translated: only a particular interpretation of it can be rendered into a different language. Ghedira claims that in his interpretation he tried to follow the signification of the Arabic text and ‘the most orthodox Muslim exegesis.’ What this entails, we do not know as, since the translation has no annotation, it is impossible to identify the sources used by Ghedira. He obviously worked with the Qur’an edition by Gustav Flügel (Leipzig 1834), a rather ‘Orientalist’ choice, as is clear from the idiosyncratic system of verse numbering he employs. However, he does not follow Flügel’s equally idiosyncratic readings (qirāʾāt) consistently. This indicates that he probably used a muṣḥaf based on the reading of Ḥafṣ in addition to Flügel’s edition – or that he followed the choices of translators who had done so.

It is clear from analyzing Ghedira’s translation that he did consult previous translations, especially that by Kazimirski (whom he does not even mention in his introduction!) and also that by Blachère. Some of his translations are practically identical to those of Kazimirski. He does not slavishly follow Kazimirski’s (or Blachères) choices, however, and frequently makes his own, although those are not always consistent. For example, he sometimes translates the Arabic term taqwā as ‘crainte de Dieu’ (‘fear of God’), as Kazimirski and Pesle/Tidjani did, and sometimes as ‘piété’ (‘piety’), as Blachère did.

Ghedira’s translation never saw a second edition and is today extremely hard to obtain, even in libraries. Part of the reason might be that two competing and far more successful translations were published around the same time, each of which had stronger credentials, by Blachère and Muhammad Hamidullah. Blachère’s above-mentioned translation was well-received by academics while Hamidullah’s ‘Le Saint Coran’, which was published in 1959, was popular with French-speaking Muslims. When positing reasons why Hamidullah’s translation instantly overtook Ghedira’s (and also Pesle/Tidjani’s), several factors come to mind, quite apart from the advantages Hamidullah’s translation had due to his personal networks, credentials as a scholar and (possibly) his choice of (Muslim) publisher. Hamidullah’s translation is embedded in the well-established South Asian tradition of Qur’an translation and, as such, has a number of characteristics that appealed to Muslim readers that Ghedira’s translation is lacking: it contains extensive annotation that is mostly based on Muslim exegetical traditions; it is the first French Qur’an translation that contains the Arabic text of the Qur’an; and, unlike Ghedira’s plain title ‘Le Coran,’ Hamidullah embellished his title with an attribute, ‘Le Saint Coran’(‘The Holy Qur’an’), thereby positioning his book as an object of piety and religious practice.

Ghedira’s translation, in contrast, did not possess any of the characteristics that would have made it useful to practicing Muslims, and Gradassi’s artwork alone, despite being aesthetically pleasing, was obviously not enough to convince non-Muslim French readers to buy it either. Therefore, it is now all but forgotten.

Johanna Pink

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