Monday, April 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Gain Access to Koran in Their Own Languages

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 21 – More than perhaps the followers of any other faith, Muslims have insisted since the founding of their faith more than1400 years ago that the Koran exists only in Arabic, that any translations can provide only a glimpse at its meaning, and that as a result, they should be described only as guides to its meaning.
But both the declining share of the world’s Muslims for whom Arabic is a native language – now less than one in four followers of Islam is an Arab speaker – and the rising fraction of the umma without access to Arabic instruction – especially in the post-Soviet states – are leading more Muslims to rely on translations.
On the one hand, these trends are generating a backlash among traditionalists, whose complaints about the translations often divide the faithful. But on the other, just like the translation of the Vulgate Latin Bible into vernacular languages 600 years ago in Europe, they are leading to reformist ideas, if not yet to a “Reformation” of Islam.
One of the most important of the new translations of the Koran is that of Anas Bakiyevich Khalidov (1929-2001), a Tatar scholar who spent most of his career as an Arabist in St. Petersburg but who returned to Kazan at the end of his life in order to recover his national past and complete his translation into Tatar in Latin script.
Today, on the portal, his student, Rezeda Safiullina, discusses Khalidov, himself a student of Academic I.Yu. Krachkovskiy who is known for his translation of the Koran into Russia, as well as Khalidov’s translation of the Koran (
Khalidov, Safiullina says, considered the translation of the Koran into his native Tatar to be “the chief work of his entire life.” And although he was able to work on it full-time only during the last two years of his life, she continues, the late scholar in fact had been working on it part-time for many, many years.
One reason that he considered this translation so important, she says, is that Khalidov felt a profound need for a “Tatarized” version of the Koran, one accurate, poetic and accessible. And that is why, she continues, he insisted on preparing it in Latin script, an alphabet far more congruent with Tatar than the Cyrillic-based one.
Khalidov saw himself as the successor not only of Russian Academician Krachkovskiy but also of the great Tatar jadids of the late nineteenth and early 20th century, scholars and activists who also frequently translated portions of the Koran in order to make it more accessible to a broader audience.
Unfortunately, Safiullina says, “with the death of Khalidov the tradition of reading of the manuscripts of Arabic texts has practically died out” in Tatarstan not only because few young people are willing to devote the time it takes to master that language but also because few institutions support it.
According to Safiullina, she has had to work during her free time because “the [Kazan] Institute of History where [she] works, is occupied with other scholarly issues” and thus does not promote Arabic knowledge. While that makes Khalidov’s translation of the Koran important, she argues that more young people should learn Arabic.
At the same time, however, she insists that his translation will have a broader impact on Muslims and scholars than just those in Tatarstan. Because Tatar is a Turkic language, she concludes, it will certainly affect “not only Tatar society but the entire Turkic language world.
Those who are uncomfortable with such translations of the Koran are also fighting back, even if their efforts may best be described as rear-guard actions. The Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan, for example, has just released a book on teaching Arabic in middle schools (
And learned Muslim theologians continue to insist that Muslims need to learn Arabic if they are to understand their faith. In the words of one writer, “Faith has a language” – and it is Arabic ( But the tone of such advocates appears increasingly defensive.
Indeed, the very fact that articles with titles like “The Status of Arabic in Islam” are appearing suggests that as the percentage of Arab speakers among Muslims continues to decline, the faithful will use translations – and that shift is something that could make all the difference to the future of Islam (

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