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The Global Qur’an (GloQur)

Translations of the Qur’an. Image provided by the author.

Johanna Pink


In May 2019, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs announced the publication of an Amharic Qur’an translation that they wanted to distribute in Ethiopia in Ramadan.

This is part of an ongoing effort to produce Qur’an translations into a wide range of African, Asian, and European languages, especially those into which the Qur’an has not been translated before. What Turkey is doing now, the Medina-based King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an has been doing since the 1980s, and more recently, several other nation-state actors such as Iran and Malaysia have joined the competition for global influence. Since the first decades of the 20th century, Qur’an translation, and especially the Muslim segment of its production and consumption, has gained a global dimension that has occasionally been noted but never comprehensively studied. 

The project “The Global Qur’an (GloQur)”, based at the University of Freiburg, Germany, directed by Johanna Pink, and funded by the European Research Council with 2 million euros, will be the first project that tackles the global dimension of Muslim Qur’an translation in the 20th and 21st centuries, a topic that has so far attracted surprisingly little attention in Islamic Studies. The field of Qur’an translation has rarely been studied by Islamicists as an exegetical discipline with its own history and impact beyond the European history of Christian polemics and Orientalism; and while there is huge interest on the part of many Muslim scholars in Qur’an translation today, much of it focuses on identifying methods of producing a dogmatically and linguistically ‘correct’ translation. GloQur goes beyond both of these approaches and also beyond conventional regional areas of specialisation, aiming to assemble a team with a diverse linguistic skillset.

This team will focus on two main areas of research.

The first of those addresses international actors in the field of Qur’an translation and their institutional approach to producing such translations. This includes nation states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey but also missionary organizations such as the two branches of the Ahmadiyya movement which have played a fundamental role in the history of Muslim Qur’an translation. GloQur will shed light on the interplay between the institutional expectations of the producers of Qur’an translations and the linguistic demands as well as the literary traditions of the target languages.

The second area of research is related to global imperial languages, especially English, French, and Russian. Nearly every year, new translations into these former languages of colonial empires are produced, quite frequently by translators who do not speak them as their first language but choose them because of their prestige and global outreach. In doing so, they have to contend with Christian and Orientalist traditions of Qur’an translation and a largely non-Muslime literary heritage which includes a history of Biblical translation. Moreover, their translations will be read by religiously and ideologically diverse audiences. As such, many translators try to balance the Arabic-Islamic exegetical heritage with contemporary social and ethical demands. 

How translators navigate the exegetical heritage is the core question that informs all parts of the project and connects them. Modern Qur’an translations constitute a genre of exegesis that is characterized by brevity, a low level of ambiguity, and the reconstruction of the Arabic Qur’an’s meaning in a target language in the form of a coherent text. These features frequently force translators to make decisions which they may base on a wide array of linguistic and exegetical resources, including dictionaries, pre-modern Qur’anic commentaries, the repertoire of modernist Qur’an interpretation, and earlier Qur’an translations in their own target languages and others.

Translations of the Qur’an
Translations of the Qur’an. Image provided by the author.

In analyzing translator’s approaches, GloQur will focus on three issues in particular: gender, polemics, and the ‘religious other.’ 

Gender is probably the most controversial ‘hot topic’ in debates about what the Qur’an means to Muslims today. The wording of the Qur’an often seems at odds with contemporary conceptions of women’s rights, which are in themselves diverse. Moreover, this topic is relevant for the study of Qur’an translation because of its linguistic dimension. Grammatical gender structures differ from language to language. Translating the Arabic Qur’an may thus enforce choices that either dilute or intensify the gendered language of the Qur’an – for example when the target language, in contrast to Arabic, has no gendered pronouns or no word for ‘spouse’, only for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’.

The relevance of polemics for understanding Qur’an translations derives from the fact that, like other exegetical works, many of them are implicitly or explicitly written against an opponent and, by the same token, in defence of one’s own position. Given the diversity of the global Muslim field, this is virtually unavoidable. Translators might side with or against modernists, Ashʿari ulama, Salafis, Jihadis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunnis, Shiʿis, Sufis, Ahmadis, the governments of particular nation-states, and so forth. Qur’an translations may thus be used either by translators or their audiences to support or question religious authority and legitimacy, which occasionally even has an impact on political power struggles.

The ‘religious other’ is another central point of contention today. The way in which the Qur’an talks about non-Muslims is often read as either legitimizing or forbidding violence towards non-Muslims. Discussions of the role of the ‘religious other’ also pertain to issues such as inter-religious marriage, ritual purity, and the question whether non-Muslims may enter paradise. More fundamentally, they concern the religious categories used by the Qur’an such as mushrik (‘someone who associates others with God’, typically taken to mean ‘idolater’ or ‘polytheist’) and kāfir (‘disbeliever’) and the question what they mean in the contemporary world. The translation of these categories might reflect and inform perspectives on the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, both in Muslim-majority societies and with regard to diasporic groups. When the Qur’an is translated into a language predominantly spoken by non-Muslims, the translation may also have repercussions on non-Muslim views of Islam. Many Muslim translators since the early 20th century have clearly been aware of the non-Muslim gaze and responded to it.

The members of the GloQur team will combine their various linguistic and disciplinary skills to address these and further issues from the perspective of language, exegesis, history, media, space, politics, and society. Field work components will address not only the textual and literary history of modern Qur’an translation but also their reception and use among Muslim audiences. This will contribute to a better understanding of what Muslim readers make of the stylistic, linguistic and exegetical choices made by translators, which range from the decision for or against the language of Bible translation to the theological question of how to deal with the anthropomorphic attributes of God.

GloQur aims to shed light on the global and often surprising entanglements that characterize the field of Qur’an translation in the modern period. For instance, the Russian Qur’an translations of the two rivalling Ahmadiyya movements were produced in Britain and Quebec, and both are based on doctrines that originate in South Asia. A popular French Qur’an translation was written by a Mauretanian sheikh at the behest of a Saudi government institution. Qur’an translation continues to be a local practice but, as these examples show, it is also very much part of a global flow of ideas and competition for religious authority. By widening the gaze beyond the Islamicate world and by studying connections between the shifting centers and peripheries of political empires and religious movements, GloQur will contribute to a more cosmopolitan approach to Islamic Studies.

 

JOHANNA PINK is a Senior Fellow & Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

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The Global Qur’an (GloQur)


Johanna Pink


In May 2019, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs announced the publication of an Amharic Qur’an translation that they wanted to distribute in Ethiopia in Ramadan.

This is part of an ongoing effort to produce Qur’an translations into a wide range of African, Asian, and European languages, especially those into which the Qur’an has not been translated before. What Turkey is doing now, the Medina-based King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an has been doing since the 1980s, and more recently, several other nation-state actors such as Iran and Malaysia have joined the competition for global influence. Since the first decades of the 20th century, Qur’an translation, and especially the Muslim segment of its production and consumption, has gained a global dimension that has occasionally been noted but never comprehensively studied. 

The project “The Global Qur’an (GloQur)”, based at the University of Freiburg, Germany, directed by Johanna Pink, and funded by the European Research Council with 2 million euros, will be the first project that tackles the global dimension of Muslim Qur’an translation in the 20th and 21st centuries, a topic that has so far attracted surprisingly little attention in Islamic Studies. The field of Qur’an translation has rarely been studied by Islamicists as an exegetical discipline with its own history and impact beyond the European history of Christian polemics and Orientalism; and while there is huge interest on the part of many Muslim scholars in Qur’an translation today, much of it focuses on identifying methods of producing a dogmatically and linguistically ‘correct’ translation. GloQur goes beyond both of these approaches and also beyond conventional regional areas of specialisation, aiming to assemble a team with a diverse linguistic skillset.

This team will focus on two main areas of research.

The first of those addresses international actors in the field of Qur’an translation and their institutional approach to producing such translations. This includes nation states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey but also missionary organizations such as the two branches of the Ahmadiyya movement which have played a fundamental role in the history of Muslim Qur’an translation. GloQur will shed light on the interplay between the institutional expectations of the producers of Qur’an translations and the linguistic demands as well as the literary traditions of the target languages.

The second area of research is related to global imperial languages, especially English, French, and Russian. Nearly every year, new translations into these former languages of colonial empires are produced, quite frequently by translators who do not speak them as their first language but choose them because of their prestige and global outreach. In doing so, they have to contend with Christian and Orientalist traditions of Qur’an translation and a largely non-Muslime literary heritage which includes a history of Biblical translation. Moreover, their translations will be read by religiously and ideologically diverse audiences. As such, many translators try to balance the Arabic-Islamic exegetical heritage with contemporary social and ethical demands. 

How translators navigate the exegetical heritage is the core question that informs all parts of the project and connects them. Modern Qur’an translations constitute a genre of exegesis that is characterized by brevity, a low level of ambiguity, and the reconstruction of the Arabic Qur’an’s meaning in a target language in the form of a coherent text. These features frequently force translators to make decisions which they may base on a wide array of linguistic and exegetical resources, including dictionaries, pre-modern Qur’anic commentaries, the repertoire of modernist Qur’an interpretation, and earlier Qur’an translations in their own target languages and others.

Translations of the Qur’an
Translations of the Qur’an. Image provided by the author.

In analyzing translator’s approaches, GloQur will focus on three issues in particular: gender, polemics, and the ‘religious other.’ 

Gender is probably the most controversial ‘hot topic’ in debates about what the Qur’an means to Muslims today. The wording of the Qur’an often seems at odds with contemporary conceptions of women’s rights, which are in themselves diverse. Moreover, this topic is relevant for the study of Qur’an translation because of its linguistic dimension. Grammatical gender structures differ from language to language. Translating the Arabic Qur’an may thus enforce choices that either dilute or intensify the gendered language of the Qur’an – for example when the target language, in contrast to Arabic, has no gendered pronouns or no word for ‘spouse’, only for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’.

The relevance of polemics for understanding Qur’an translations derives from the fact that, like other exegetical works, many of them are implicitly or explicitly written against an opponent and, by the same token, in defence of one’s own position. Given the diversity of the global Muslim field, this is virtually unavoidable. Translators might side with or against modernists, Ashʿari ulama, Salafis, Jihadis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sunnis, Shiʿis, Sufis, Ahmadis, the governments of particular nation-states, and so forth. Qur’an translations may thus be used either by translators or their audiences to support or question religious authority and legitimacy, which occasionally even has an impact on political power struggles.

The ‘religious other’ is another central point of contention today. The way in which the Qur’an talks about non-Muslims is often read as either legitimizing or forbidding violence towards non-Muslims. Discussions of the role of the ‘religious other’ also pertain to issues such as inter-religious marriage, ritual purity, and the question whether non-Muslims may enter paradise. More fundamentally, they concern the religious categories used by the Qur’an such as mushrik (‘someone who associates others with God’, typically taken to mean ‘idolater’ or ‘polytheist’) and kāfir (‘disbeliever’) and the question what they mean in the contemporary world. The translation of these categories might reflect and inform perspectives on the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, both in Muslim-majority societies and with regard to diasporic groups. When the Qur’an is translated into a language predominantly spoken by non-Muslims, the translation may also have repercussions on non-Muslim views of Islam. Many Muslim translators since the early 20th century have clearly been aware of the non-Muslim gaze and responded to it.

The members of the GloQur team will combine their various linguistic and disciplinary skills to address these and further issues from the perspective of language, exegesis, history, media, space, politics, and society. Field work components will address not only the textual and literary history of modern Qur’an translation but also their reception and use among Muslim audiences. This will contribute to a better understanding of what Muslim readers make of the stylistic, linguistic and exegetical choices made by translators, which range from the decision for or against the language of Bible translation to the theological question of how to deal with the anthropomorphic attributes of God.

GloQur aims to shed light on the global and often surprising entanglements that characterize the field of Qur’an translation in the modern period. For instance, the Russian Qur’an translations of the two rivalling Ahmadiyya movements were produced in Britain and Quebec, and both are based on doctrines that originate in South Asia. A popular French Qur’an translation was written by a Mauretanian sheikh at the behest of a Saudi government institution. Qur’an translation continues to be a local practice but, as these examples show, it is also very much part of a global flow of ideas and competition for religious authority. By widening the gaze beyond the Islamicate world and by studying connections between the shifting centers and peripheries of political empires and religious movements, GloQur will contribute to a more cosmopolitan approach to Islamic Studies.

 

JOHANNA PINK is a Senior Fellow & Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

The Global Qur’an (GloQur)

The Global Qur’an (GloQur)