Qur’an translation of the week #87: The Uncrowned King of Java and his Qur’an Translation

Indonesia has experienced approximately 350 years of colonization, first by the Portuguese and Dutch following the arrival of the Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie) in the 1600s and, more recently, with three years of Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. The country’s struggle to achieve independence was not easy, especially given the diversity of the Indonesian tribes, cultures and customs scattered throughout the archipelago. Only after the Dutch government launched an ethical policy to educate their colonial subjects in the early nineteenth century did new thinkers emerge to take the forefront in working to realize Indonesian independence. Among these figures was RM Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto, better known as HOS Tjokroaminoto (Tjokro). Tjokro’s father was an assistant to the Regent, his grandfather was the Regent of Ponorogo, and his great-grandfather was Kiyai Hasan Besari, an esteemed cleric from Ponorogo who ran the Tegal Sari Islamic boarding school.

Due to his aristocratic background, Tjokroamionoto had the opportunity to study at a Dutch school and, after graduating, he took a job as a clerk in the Ngawi area. However, his free spirit led him to reject colonialism and resign from this job, following which he travelled to visit teachers and scholars in search of education in a variety of subjects, including Islam, socialism, and Marxism. Tjokroaminoto finally found the means to realize his ideas in the Islamic Trade Union (Sarekat Dagang Islam) which he joined in 1912. A year after joining, the organization changed its name to Sarekat Islam (SI) to cover a wider space of struggle and Tjokroaminoto was elected as its leader. Under his leadership, Sarekat Islam became the largest pro-independence organization at that time, with a membership of about two million people.

Quoting the historian Harry J. Benda (1983), Michael Laffan (in ‘Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Wind’, 2002) asserts that Sarekat Islam was a social rather than an ideological organization because Tjokroaminoto’s primary aspiration was to improve the conditions of people living in poverty caused by colonialism. His resistance toward colonialism, through his writings, speeches and actions, made him a hero for the little people, and some even believed him to be theRatu Adil, a long-awaited mythical millenarian Javanese figure who will finally save the people from suffering. His massive influence and popularity led the Dutch government to give him the nickname ‘The Uncrowned King of Java’ (‘De Ongekroonde van Java’). Under Tjokroaminoto’s wing were fostered resistance leaders of various ideological bents: the nationalist Soekarno, who later became the first President of the Republic of Indonesia; the communists Semaun, Muso, and Alimin; the Islamist S.M. Kartosuwiryo, the founder of Darul Islam/Negara Islam Indonesia; and the ulama Hamka and M. Nasir. Tjokro’s role was so pivotal that he has been called ‘the godfather of Indonesia’s founding fathers’ (Zainal C. Airlangga, ‘Raja Jawa tanpa Mahkota,’ 2020.). Soekarno once said that if Tjokroaminoto were still alive, he would be the president of the Republic of Indonesia because he was the real father of the nation.

Tjokroaminioto never received a formal religious education and was more self-taught, and this is reflected in the way he understands Islam as a value system and a source of knowledge. But he believed that the ‘ukhuwah Islamiyyah’(Islamic brotherhood) had the power to unite nations to fight against their colonial invaders.

Translating the Qur’an into Malay: ‘Qoer’an Sutji’

By 1924, the teachings of the Lahore Ahmadiyya had spread to Yogyakarta, brought by an Ahmadi da’i, Mirza Wali Ahmad Baiq. Initially, the movement received support from the Yogyakarta branch of the influential reformist Muhammadiyah movement, and Baiq was even invited to live in the house of a Muhammadiyah activist, Haji Hilal, in the Gerjen area of Yogyakarta. As the head of SI, Tjokro, who also lived in Yogyakarta, took the opportunity to get to know Ahmad Baiq, who had become a magnet for young Muslims in the area. One of Baiq’s activities was teaching English and, through him, Tjokro was introduced to the English Qur’an translation by Muhammad Ali, the founder of the Lahore Ahmadiyya, which impressed him and inspired him to translate the Qur’an from English into Malay.

Tjokroaminoto’s decision to undertake this project was triggered by his concern about the lack of sufficient Islamic instruction given to young activists of the Jong Islamieten Bond (‘Islamic Youth Association’), which had been established in 1925, who were mostly studying at Dutch-curriculum schools. He intended that his translation would allow these students to ‘regain confidence in Islam’ after being educated in schools that put more emphasis more on rationality than faith, as well as strengthen them against the appeal of colonialist-promoted Christianity and materialism.

It is reported that Tjokro began work on translating Muhammad Ali’s ‘The Holy Quran’ while on board a ship that took him and Kiyai Mas Mansur, a Muhammadiyah figure, to Mecca to attend the World Islamic Conference in 1926. The translation project was initially approved by another prominent Muhammadiyah figure of the time, Haji Fakhrudin (Nur Ichwan, ‘Differing Responses to an Ahmadi Translation and Exegesis: The Holy Qur’an in Egypt and Indonesia’. In: Archipel. Volume 62. (2001). pp.143-161). However, when Tjokroaminoto returned from Mecca, the response of several Muslim groups to the project had changed, and the Muhammadiyah were especially vocal in their protest against it following a public debate between Haji Abdul Karim Amrullah (Haji Rasul), a reformer from West Sumatra who later became active in the Muhammadiyah, and Ahmad Baiq from the Ahmadiyya. Muhammadiyah activists who had a close relationship with Ahmad Baiq were excluded from the organization. The situation was exacerbated by the arrival in Java of an Indian ulama, Abdul Alim Sidiq al-Qodiri, at the end of 1927 to campaign against the misleading teachings of the Ahmadiyya.

In July 1928, the Muhammadiyah issued an instruction letter that forbade all of its branches from promulgating Ahmadiyya teachings and asked Muhammadiyah’s cadres to abandon the teachings of the Ahmadiyya or be expelled from the Muhammadiyah (Ismatu Ropi, ‘Islamism, Government Regulation, and the Ahmadiyya Controversies in Indonesia’, ‘Al-Jami’ah’ vol. 48, no 2 (2010), pp. 281–320). The Muhammadiyah’s argument that Muhammad Ali’s ‘The Holy Quran’ deviated from the orthodox teachings of Islam as held by the Muslim mainstream and that the Ahmadiyya is considered by most Muslims to have turned away from Islam became the main obstacles to Tjokroaminoto continuing his translation project.

During the Al-Islam congress held in February 1928, the Muhammadiyah proposed a debate between Muhammad Ali and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā but this idea was rejected by the audience. An attempt to resolve the dispute was then proposed by an imam from Sambas, Muhammad Basyuni ‘Imran (1885–1981), who had another idea. He sent a letter to his teacher Rashīd Riḍā, the most popular Islamic reformist at that time, asking for his fatwa regarding Tjokroaminoto’s and Ali’s respective translations. In his reply, Rashīd Riḍā calls on his fellow Muslims to avoid using translations produced by the Ahmadiyya because, in his opinion, they could lead people astray. In his view, Ali’s translation deviated from the standard interpretation of the holy text, corrupting and distorting the Qur’an (Najib Burhani, ‘Sectarian Translation of The Quran in Indonesia, The Case of the Ahmadiyya Al-Jāmi‘ah’, Journal of Islamic Studies vol. 53, no. 2 (2015), pp. 251–282).

Internal factors at work within Sarekat Islam also presented obstacles to the project when accusations were made that Tjokroaminoto lacked the linguistic ability and knowledge to translate the Qur’an. Tjokro was indeed not fluent in Arabic and had never specifically studied Islam. As a result, he was considered by many of his peers to be unfit to carry out this project.

The controversy over Tjokroaminoto’s translation of the Qur’an continued to grow until the issue was eventually brought to the Congress of the Indonesian Council of Ulama of PSI in Kediri on September 27–30, 1928. The Council approved Tjokroaminoto’s project, with the condition that the translation would proceed under the supervision of the Council. However, it seems that even though the Council gave its endorsement to the project, the heated controversy surrounding it led Tjokroaminoto to lose motivation. By the time of his death in 1934, he had not finished the translation and (Burhani, 2015). In that same year, R. Soedewo, an IHS Muhammadiyah teacher who regularly contributed to Jong Islamieten Bond’s journal ‘Het Licht’ and later became a Lahore Ahmadiyya activist (Gerakan Ahmadiyah Indonesia, GAI), published his own translation of Muhammad Ali’s ‘The Holy Quran’ in Dutch. See Johanna Pink, translation of the week #21: Soedewo and the dutch Quran in Indonesia).

From what we have of Tjokroaminoto’s translation in its original manuscript form, we can see that there is no fundamental difference between ‘Qoer-an Soetji’ and Muhammad Ali’s ‘The Holy Quran’ in terms of layout. Tjokroaminoto mostly translated it literally, adding in some hadiths in footnotes. Today, the existence of the manuscript of Tjokroaminoto’s ‘Qoer-an Soetji,’ however, is difficult to trace, even among the collection of the National Library in Jakarta, which only holds 27 pages of its text with a foreword from Haji Agus Salim.

Yulia Riswan

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