Qur’an translation of the week #81: ‘Qurani-Kərim və məalı’ – A new Azerbaijanian ‘translation of the meanings of the Qur’an’

Following the pattern of almost all translations of the Qur’an into Turkish, Ələddin Sultanov’s recent Azerbaijani Qur’an translation (Baku: İpəkyolu nəşriyyatı, 2020) is named a ‘translation of the meanings of the Qur’an’ (məalı, sing. məal). First appearing as a word-by-word translation intended to assist those who study the Qur’an, this text was later developed into a new, individually-authored translation of the Qur’an in modern Azerbaijani. So far, two editions have been printed, in 2020 and 2021, and the later edition includes a new introduction. The translation is by Dr Aladdin Sultanov, a scholar with a number of affiliations in Azerbaijan, most notably with the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology (‘Azərbaycan İlahiyyat İnstitutu’). Sultanov graduated from Marmara University in Istanbul in 2017, with a thesis on the comparison between the exegetical legacy of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) and Hamdi Yazir Elmalılı (d. 1361/1942), and is well-known for his work on tafsīr, both in print (Yasin surəsinin təfsiri, 2021) and on various religious and educational YouTube channels.

The edition under review here is the more recent 2021 translation, which was published with two introductions (one of which was drawn from the first edition), and an index of names and terms, followed by the Arabic text of the Qur’an and, finally, a ‘du’ā khatm al-Qur’ān’ in Arabic accompanied by its translation into Azerbaijani. The Arabic text of the Qur’an follows the standard edition published by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and the translation contains quite a few explanatory insertions (given in brackets) and plenty of commentary, written in very accessible and simple way. Quite often the exegetical statements follow the format: ‘Rəvayətə görə …’ (‘According to the story narrated …) or ‘Təfsirçilərə görə …,’ (‘According to the authors of tafsīrs …’), without mentioning any exact sources. A similar format is used when it comes to commenting on the differences between ritual practices in the Sunni and Shia schools: ‘Məzhəblərə görə …’ (‘According to some madhhabs …’). The introduction to the first edition, however, mentions at least two exegetical sources widely used in Azerbaijani translation, that is, the classical ‘Tafsīr Jalālayn’ (which has historically been popular with Qur’an translators as it provides a concise source of Sunni interpretations) and the voluminous Turkish commentary by Süleyman Ateş (b. 1933) known as ‘Kur’an-ı Kerim’in Yüce Meali ve Çağdaş Tefsiri’ (‘The Sublime Meanings of the Holy Qur’an and Its Contemporary Interpretation’). Sultanov also consulted previous Azerbaijani translations; for example, Vasim Mammadaliyev (1942–2019), the co-author of the first modern translation into Azerbaijanian (published in Baku in 1991), is mentioned as an academic advisor for this project. Thus, this work can be seen as an important continuation of the contemporary Azerbaijani tradition of Qur’an interpretation. Although it does not provide as much academic commentary as Vasim Mammadaliyev and Ziya Bunyadov’s 1991 translation, it is still more informative than Alikhan Musayev’s 2008 translation, which aimed to be a kind of grammatical rendition. Sultanov’s translation is also given additional authority by the fact that (as is referred to in both the cover page and introduction) the main advisor of the project (baş məsləhətçi) was Sheikh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazadeh (b. 1949), the chairman of Qafqaz Müsəlmanları İdarəsi (‘The Religious Board of Muslims of the Caucasus’), who is a leading religious figure in Azerbaijan. The participation of such an august official religious authority in the project has given the translation prestige.

A common dilemma for many translators into Turkic languages is how to deal with Arabic-loan words in the target language, since many of them are familiar to the modern readership, but may not carry exactly the same meaning as the original Arabic words do in the Qur’an. Aladdin Sultanov decided to preserve the basic Qur’anic vocabulary, but to provide alternative variants as well. For example, for Q 55:7–9, he gives ‘O, göyü ucaltdı və mizanı (tərəzini) qoydu ki, Tərəzidə həddi aşmayasınız. Tərəzidə ədalətə riayət edin və çəkini əskiltməyin!’ (‘And He raised the heaven and imposed the balance, that you not transgress within the balance, and establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance’). Here, ‘mizanı’ (based on the Qur’anic Arabic ‘al-mīzān’) is explained as ‘tərəzini’ (‘the scales’), and later the text continues to use the explanatory variant, rather than ‘mizanı’. Sometimes, the situation is reversed and a ‘new’ word is used and the Arabic loan word is noted in the subsequent explanation: thus Sultanov renders Q 9:3 as ‘Ən böyük Həcc (Həcci-əkbər) günü …’ (‘On the Day of the Great Hajj (Həcci-əkbər) …’). A more advanced level of domestication is used for the divine names: for example, the very beginning and end of the Throne Verse are translated as: ‘Allahdan başqa ilah yoxdur! O diridir, bütün məxluqatı idarə edir … Ən uca və ən böyük olan da Odur!’ (‘There is no god but Allah. He is the One Living, the Ruler of all creation … He is the Most High, and the One Who is the Most Great’), which looks more like an explanatory translation than a literal one. For the Arabic word ‘al-Malik’ (which generally means ‘the ruler’) in Q 12:50, Sultanov uses the modern word ‘kral’ (‘the king’, cf. Turkish ‘kral’ and Russian ‘korol’), whereas previous translators used more anachronistic words such as ‘hökmdar’ (Bunyadov-mammadaliyev) or ‘padşah’ (Musayev).

In some suras, the translator also adds specific names to various characters, such as ‘Züleyha’ and ‘Bünyamin’ in Q 12, and ‘Xızır’ in Q 18 although they are not actually mentioned by name in the original Qur’anic text. There is also an interesting ‘domestic’ wording provided in the story of Dhū ’l-Qarnayn: ‘Zülqərneyn qərbdə Sakit okeanına, yaxud Qara dənizə qədər getmiş və orada günəşin dəniz üfqündə batmasını seyr etmişdi’ (‘Dhu’l-Qarnayn traveled as far west as the Pacific Ocean or the Black Sea, where he watched the sun set on the horizon’) (Q. 86:18). Exactly the same interpretation is given in ‘Kur’an Yolu Tefsiri’ (‘The Way of the Qur’an’), a five-volume interpretation of the Qur’an written by a team of Turkish scholars and published by TDRA, and reflects a number of later Ottoman exegetical sources. This attests to the fact that development of Qur’anic translations in Azerbaijan has much of common with contemporary Qur’anic Studies in Turkey. Another notable factor in Sultanov’s translation is that it is based mostly on Sunni sources, but never refers to any Sunni-Shii polemics, thus fitting into the Azerbaijani paradigm of state-promoted multiculturalism by avoiding any specific confessional readings.

Despite being published only very recently, both editions of ‘Qurani-Kərim və məalı’ have already become popular with readers, and are available on a number of religious web-sites (Quran.Az) as well as a special app designed for use on mobile devices. ‘Qurani-Kərim və məalı’ is also promoted by institutions of religious learning in Azerbaijan, so there is every chance that it will become one of the most popular Qur’an translations used by native speakers of the Azerbaijani language.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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