Sunday, March 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: New Russian Translation of Koran Highlights Changes in Islamic Community There

Paul Goble

Baku, March 24 – A new rendering of the Koran into Russian – the 23rd such translation since the first appeared in 1776 – highlights demographic changes within the Muslim community in the Russian Federation in recent years and appears likely to stimulate reformist thinking within that more than 20 million strong group.
On the one hand, it – and especially the fact that one of the translators involved is a Kazan Tatar poet – reflects the increasing share that Russian-speaking Muslims from the North Caucasus and former Soviet republics play in the Russian umma and the declining influence of the Tatars over that community.
And on the other, this translation from Arabic into vernacular languages, like others produced in recent years, makes the basic text of Islam directly available to more believers, a development likely to promote both radical and especially reformist challenges to the existing Muslim establishment there.
Last week, Ravil Bukharayev, a Tatar poem and dramatist, presented the translation of the Koran into Russian that he and colleagues from Moscow and London have prepared over the last decade at a meeting of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan (
In an interview to the Kazan newspaper Vremya i den’gi, Bukharyev said that he believed that such a translation was absolutely necessary both to correct the mistakes in interpretation contained in earlier versions and also to bring the text to “thousands” of Muslims who do not know Arabic.
Every translation, he pointed out, reflects the times in which it is done as well as an effort by those who make it to render its verses accurately. As an example of this challenge, he described the very different readings of the ayat on jihad in past Russian translation.
In one Soviet-era translation, he suggests, one might draw the conclusion that the Koran advocates a permanent jihad against non-Muslims, but Bukharyev said that “in the real text itself, it is said: struggle until they cease to oppress oppressing you. In this case, the meaning is different.” It is: “defend yourself when they attack you.”
Another problem, he said, is that some translations strive to reproduce the Koran’s poetics, an effort that often lands creates problems of its own. The Krachkovskiy translation, standard in Soviet times, is often poetically beautiful but incorrect as a result. Bukharyev said his own aims for accuracy even at the expense of poetic beauty.
Given the sensitivity of translations of the Koran – many Muslims still reject them as mere “interpretations” of the genuine Arabic original – intra-Islamic politics reared its head during Bukharyev’s presentation. (On these issues, see the articles in the current issue of “Minaret” at )
Not only did many participants challenge him on specifics – including institute director, advisor to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev and noted theorist on EuroIslam Rafael Khakimov -- but representatives of the Muslim establishment did not show up.
The reason for the absence of leaders of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Republic of Tatarstan? They were invited but declined to come, apparently because the translators are adherents to the Ahmadi sect, a group that as “Vremya i den’gi” pointed out, “the Tatarstan religious leaders do not recognize.”
But this translation of the Koran into Russian, like two other recent ones – Azerbaijani Elmir Kuliyev’s in 2004 and ethnic Russian convert Valeriya Prokhova’s in 2006 – both reflect and call attention to two significant trends within the Muslims of the Russian Federation.
As a result of immigration and higher birthrates among North Caucasus groups, Russian speakers form an ever larger proportion of the faithful, a development that has forced Tatar mullahs in Moscow and other Russian cities to shift over the last 15 years Tatar to Russian in their homilies.
That change has led some to suggest that the Tatars and their historically moderate form of Islam are at risk of being muscled aside by others, but this linguistic shift and especially the new translations may have just the opposite effect, allowing them to reach out beyond their own linguistic community and to promote reformist ideas.
Instead of being displaced at the mosques in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, Tatar mullahs and imams are flourishing and attracting larger flocks precisely because they can now speak more easily to Muslims from Central Asia and the Caucasus who speak Russian but not Tatar.
And at the same time, as many Tatars are aware, by providing translations of the Koran into the vernacular, they are making it more likely that Russia’s Muslims will reach their own conclusions about the faith rather than accept as definitive the views of representatives of radical trends from the Arab Middle East.
Indeed, it is clear the Tatars hope that the spread of Russian-language Korans will have an affect on Islam there analogous to the one German and English translations of the Bible from Latin had on Christians in Western Europe 500 years ago, leading to increased interest in religion by ordinary believers and to a reformation in the faith itself.

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