Translating Islamic sources

An Introduction of the Translation Movement of the Qur’an in the European Vernaculars
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BY FURQAN MAJEED

The movement for translation of the Qur’an in different European vernaculars traces its origin back to the twelfth century. The translation of traditional Islamic sources, including the Qur’an in European languages, was taken up by different translational houses collectively having royal patronage.

However, these translations have astonished Muslim readers to the extent of their quantity, quality, and tendency towards the approach of translation and tafsir (interpretation).

However, the most striking facet of translating the Qur’an into Western languages is that its manuscripts are still in existence. Scholars are of the opinion that the biased approach reflected in such translations and commentaries of the Qur’an had marked the beginning of a history of conflict, not only with Islam but within Christendom as well.

According to Zaid Elmarsafy, “the earliest serious attempt at translating the Qur’an was conceived at a key geographic and cultural interface between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds; namely the Iberian Peninsula.” (See, The Enlightenment Qur’an).

The first attempt in this regard was made in Spain. When in 1142 AC, Peter the Venerable (1092-1156) was called by Emperor Alfonso VII (1105-1157). Peter was a missionary influenced by the crusades and had an opinion to study Islam in order to refute it.

Along with the trope of substituting words for weapons, this became a standard part of Christian anti-Muslim polemical and apologetic literature. While in Spain, he commissioned a translation of the Qur’an and several auxiliary texts to provide the reader with a reliable source of information about Islamic history and Muslim doctrine.

Several traditional Islamic texts were translated in the name of sound translations, the most prominent ones were The Toledan Collection and the Lex Saracenorum (The Muslim Law). The Toledan Collection came to be known as a group effort; such as Robert of Ketton (fl. 1141-1157) translated both the Qur’an and a compilation of Muslim traditions entitled Fabulae Saracenorum (Fables of the Saracens).

Similarly, Herman of Dalmatia (1105/1110 – after 1154) translated Kitab Nasab Rasul Allah of Sa‘id ibn Umar as the Liber Generations Mahomet et Nutritura eius and Masa’il (Questions) of ‘Abd Allah ibn Salam as Doctrina Mahomet, and several other works of classical Muslim scholars were translated into European languages.

According to Norman Daniel, the most influential translation among the above mentioned that served the biased, somewhat polemical designs of Europe was Pseudo al-Kindi’s Letter in the medieval West. (Islam and the West, pp. 22, 113-129, 256-257).

He further says that even Mark of Toledo’s translation collection in European vernaculars, although literal, could not provide such a clear idea to the uniform reader of Islam in the West. In order to convey the message of the Qur’an in its true sense. (Ibid, p. 22).

Robert of Ketton started a similar kind of translation trend of Islamic sources. He called his translation trend the Lex Saracenorum (The Muslim Law), setting another lasting trend that future translators would imitate. These new ideas that have been promoted aimed to set the ground for translating the primary source of Islam, the Qur’an.

Therefore, the idea of the Qur’an as a source text of Muslim law, rather than the text that fulfills both doctrinal and liturgical functions, according to new trend(s), would hamper Western translators for centuries.

Subsequently, Robert attempted to produce a Latin translation marked by the elevated style associated with sacred rather than profane texts, frequently inserting material taken from exegetical commentaries on the Qur’an into the text itself, with the result that his translation comes across as a well-informed paraphrase rather than an accurate rendition of the original.

T. E. Burman says that “What is noticeable about these premodern Qur’an translators, therefore, is not that they pour their efforts into distorting the Qur’an to make it suit Christian expectations, but rather that they go to such great lengths to get across what they (often mistakenly) see as the meaning of the text.” (Burman, Reading the Qur’an, p. 22).

Thus, the movement of translations started by various academicians and religious scholars dominated by prominent Christian figures having the patronage of rulers aimed to set a new trend for future translators.

Since this trend’s sole purpose was to criticize Islamic sources; therefore, it faced wide criticism. Juan de Segovia (d. 1458), a Spanish theologian, observed that Robert was “a splendid rhetorician and poet,’’ as one could see from the preface to his Qur’an translation and that his Latin [translation of the] Qur’an was translated according to ‘‘his mode of eloquence” (Burman, p. 35).

Therefore, the Qur’an’s eloquence from the different perspectives of inimitability being a sacred text was either ignored or exaggerated. This trend had a more significant impact on the translations of works in the European languages, including English.

According to E. Denson Ross, the sacred book of Muslims in Europe was misrepresented for centuries. What was good in Islam was disregarded, and what was not good in the eyes of the West was either exaggerated or ignored. (See, E. Denson Ross, Introduction to George Sale’s Translation of the Quran, p. vi-vii).

In taking up the task of translating the Qur’an, Latin Qur’an translators had to find a way to raise the Latin language to the standards of Arabic. As the Qur’an has declared in surah 12:2: ‘‘Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand.’’ On one more occasion is said that: ‘‘this Qur’an is [in] a clear Arabic language.’’ (Al-Nahl, 16:103).

Therefore, all the translation attempts made in the European languages follow the patterns of Latin translations. As a result of this movement of translation, a significant number of Orientalists from the sixteenth century onwards translated the Qur’anic text into the English language.

Thus, the remarkable feature of these translations attempted in the European vernaculars was, according to George Sale, “it is necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared, have entertained too favorable an opinion of the original.” (See, Sale, George, The Koran; To the Reader, p. iii).

The impact of early set patterns of the translations of the Qur’an in the European languages was primarily seen in from eighteenth to twenty-century in English. Many English translations of the Qur’an appeared from 1734-1955 AC.

The significant factor of these interpretative translations was that non-Muslim academicians who wrote on different aspects of Islam used these translations as reference books. These trends produced a new movement after Orientalism which questioned the traditional Islamic sources.

This academic trend came to be known as Revisionism. In contemporary times under the roof of this academic trend, several works were written to create parallel narratives against the traditional Islamic narratives, which in some or other ways helped Islamophobia to rise in the West.

Furqan Majeed, Ph.D. Scholar, Department of Religious, Central University of Kashmir

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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