Qur’an translation of the week #98: Ibn Kathīr’s commentary as a source for a Qur’an translation into Bosnian

Since 1990, a large number of Arabic religious texts have been translated into Bosnian. When it comes to exegetical texts specifically, the appearance of a shortened version of Ibn Kathīr’s commentary in Bosnian in the mid-1990s was quite significant, and can be considered a mark of the rise of Salafism in the country which was, due to the Bosnian war, then experiencing a religious revival. Supported by Saudi religious foundations, the legacy of this exegetical work lived on, especially when, in 2013, a new translation of the Qur’an appeared which was promoted on the basis that it was solely based on Ibn Kathīr’s commentary. Prijevod (značenja) na bosanski jezik, utemeljen na Ibn Kesirovom tumačenju, i kratki komentar (‘The translation of (the meaning) into Bosnian, based on Ibn Kathīr’s interpretation, and a short commentary’), was published by the German initiative ‘Lies Stiftung’, which mostly publishes Salafi-related translations into different languages that are designed for free distribution. Prijevod (značenja) na bosanski jezik has been promoted not only in the Balkans, but also among Bosnian Muslims living in EU countries.

The translator, Muhamed Mehanović, graduated from the Gazi Husrev-Beg Islamic religious faculty (‘medresa’) in Sarajevo in 1985, and later studied at the King Saud University in Riyadh. After living abroad for many years (he began his translation while in the USA), Mehanović later returned to settle in Bosnia to take up a position as a lecturer of Islamic Studies in his alma mater, Gazi Husrev-Beg medresa in Sarajevo.

Prijevod (značenja) na bosanski jezik was published as a single volume with Bosnian text only and includes a quite detailed introduction by the translator. In this, he first introduces the reader to a diverse range of opinions on the subject of Qur’an translation, writing that translations cannot be targeted in a one-dimensional way, as being either ‘completely accurate’ or ‘not accurate’ at all. He affirms the quality of Enes Karić’s Bosnian translation of 1995 (primarily for its style) and discusses his own engagement with the translation process: in addition to consulting Karić’s translation and two other rather ‘classical’ translations into Bosnian (Causević-Pandza: 1937, Korkut: 1977), he also used two works in English: the first by Abdallah Yusuf Ali, and the second by al-Hilali and Khan. It is worth noting that three of the works he mentions were published by the King Fahd Qur’an Printing Complex in Saudi Arabia after special editorial revisions (A.Y. Ali: 1995, Korkut: 1991, al-Hilali-Khan: 1997). Thus, his own translation could be seen as the continuation of this trend, and as according with the ‘Salafi’ line of Qur’an translation.

Muhamed Mehanović explains his choice to base his translation solely on Ibn Kathīr’s commentary by advancing two main arguments: he first advocates for so-called ‘intra-Qur’anic exegesis’, that is the method of interpreting one verse of the Qur’an by another, an exegetical approach that was evaluated by Ibn Kathīr himself as ‘the most correct tafsir’ of all. Secondly, he argues that, unlike many other commentaries, Ibn Kathir’s tafsīr specifically addressed issues of Islamic religious doctrine (ʿaqīdah). Mehanović is quite ambitious in his description of the scope of Ibn Kathīr’s legacy: for him, he represents not only all the Sunni tradition, but also all the madhhabs, the religious schools of Mālik, Aḥmad, al-Shafīʿī and Abu Ḥanīfah. This seems to be a somewhat tenuous attempt to contextualize Ibn Kathīr’s legacy within a mainstream Sunni context, defining his opinions on divine attributes as representing normative, pan-Sunni views. Other statements in the introduction mostly describe his approach to the translation as being ‘explanatory’ (al-tarjamah al-tafsīriyyah); and he notes that he will preserve some basic Qur’anic vocabulary (words he could expect to be known to a Bosnian reader, such as ‘ibadet’ [‘worship’], ‘zulum’ [‘oppression’], ‘zalimun’ [‘wrongdoers’], and so on). What is also important is that Mehanović emphasizes that he follows Ibn Kathir in opting for certain variant readings (qirāʾat), and thus his Qur’an differs from the established Ḥafṣ text that is used almost everywhere in Sunni-Hanafi religious practice. An example of this can be found in Q 19:34: whereas the Ḥafṣ reading gives qawla l-haqqi (‘the true word’), Ibn Kathīr instead opts for qāla l-ḥaqqi (‘He [God] says the truth’), referring to Ibn Masʿūd. Mehanović notes this difference in a footnote, but still opts to follow the Ḥafṣ reading in the text of his translation: ‘to prava istina o njemu’ (‘this is a truth on him [i.e. Isa]’).

As mentioned above, the actual text of ‘Prijevod (značenja) na bosanski jezik’ contains only the Bosnian translation and commentary incorporated as footnotes. At a first glance, this is quite a literal translation, with no interpolations or additions in the core text. Just to compare it with some other popular Bosnian translations, we see that even order of the words in Arabic is represented in Bosnian as much as possible. For example, for Q 2:16 (ūlāʾika l-ladhīna ashtarā l-ḍalālata bi-l-hudā fa-mā rabiḥat tijāratuhum wa-mā kānū muhtadīna) Bessim Korkut writes ‘mjesto Pravim, oni su krenuli krivim putem; njihova trgovina im nije donijela nikakvu dobit, i oni ne znaju šta rade’ (‘Far from the true One, they turned on the wrong way; their bargain has not given them any profit, and they don’t know what they’re doing’). For Muhamed Mehanović, the wording is different: ‘To su oni koji su zabludu uzeli umjesto Upute, ali im njihova trgovina neće donijeti dobiti, jer oni Uputu nisu slijedili’ (‘They are those who took error instead of the Right Way, but their business has not given any profit to them, for they did not follow the Guidance’).

Although the introduction also mentions that some other classical and modern exegetical works were consulted (al-Ṭabarī, al-Shawkānī, Muḥammad al-Ashqar, Wahbah al-Zuḥaylī), most of these only provide a basic linguistic interpretation, or a paraphrase extracted from Ibn Kathīr. This is mainly the case with the various verses on divine attributes, but there are also many other cases where the translator writes ‘preveden u skladu s Ibn Kesirovim tumačenjem’ (‘translated in accordance with the explanation of Ibn Kathīr’). For example, Q 18:52 (wa-jaʿalna baynahum mawbiqah) is translated as ‘a između nj ih ćemo mjesto propasti postaviti’ (‘between them we will set a place of ruin’), a choice which is obviously influenced by the term mahlakan (‘place of ruin’) used by Ibn Kathīr. In those places, however, where Ibn Kathir provides more than one interpretation for a specific term or phrase (for instance, Q 47:19, on whether mutaqallabakum wa-mathwākum (‘your movement and your resting place’) refers to day and night or the concept of worldly and eternal life), the translator faithfully repeats his arguments.

To conclude this short review, it must also be noted that this translation has already made its way to readers via numerous Muslim online sources, as well as being distributed by the Conveying Islamic Message Society in Egypt, and some other Islamic missionary organizations. Popular mainly among a Bosnian Salafi Muslim readership, this translation steers clear of any kind of one-dimensional approach to the original Arabic text, instead delving deep into many exegetical issues. Furthermore, this translation provides quite an interesting case study of how the legacy of Ibn Kathīr has become one of the main points of reference for late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century translations of the Qur’an into European languages, reflecting the growing trend of ‘tafsirization’ of the field.

Mykhaylo Yakubovych

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