The noble Qur’an and the translation of its meaning into the German language

Heidi Josua

Nadeem Ata Elyas; Scheich Abdul- lah as-Samit Frank Bubenheim. Der edle Qur’an und die Übersetzung seiner Bedeutungen in die deutsche Sprache. [The noble Qur’an and the translation of its meaning into the German language.] Medina/Saudi- Arabia: King-Fahd (institute) for the printing of the Qur’an, 1422/1423 A.H. (2002). 624 S., appr. 25.00 € (only available via ZMD, Indestr. 93, D-52249 Eschweiler or www.em-

Always remembering that according to the tenets of Islam the text of the Koran can never legitimately be translated, only its “meaning” (p. xi), this is certainly the most significant Islamic Arabic-German version to date, even if the Introduction (p. xii) implies at the first glance it is the first ever by completely passing over the Ahmadiyya translation which has been available for decades.

The golden ornamental embellishment on the black hard cover gives this bilingual edition an striking appearance. The Arabic original determines layout and pagination: the book is to be read from right to left with the Arabic text in a very attractive type-face on the right of each double page. The German text is in smaller type, necessarily leaving a lot of blank space on each page with its decorative coloured border.

This edition is described on the inside cover as a “gift of the servant of the holy places, King Fahd ibn ‘Abd al’Aziz Al Sa’ud” and as such “not to be sold”. Copies are only obtainable through the “Central Council of Muslims in Germany” (ZMD), of which Nadeem Elyas is president. The edition has been published, printed and subsidized by the Saudi “Ministry for Islamic Affairs, Trusts, Da’wa (Propagation) and Jurisprudence”, thereby executing the Saudi’s monarch’s directive for the dissemination of the Koran. This is seen as a “service to our German-speaking brethren” but also as the fulfilment of a “duty of inviting millions of German-speakers to Islam and familiarizing them with it” (p. xvii). There seem to exist similar projects in other European countries.

This translation, whose guiding principles are set out in the Introduction, is the fruit of twelve years of labour by the Saudi-born president of the the “Central Council of Muslims in Germany”, Dr. Nadeem Elyas, and the Amman-based German convert to Islam Abdullah Frank Bubenheim under the supervision of the “Aachen Islamic Centre”.

It would have been intrinsically more interesting if the translators had placed their work in the context of other recent Islamic versions rather than simply demarcating it from the Lebanese-born theology professor Adel Theodor Khoury’s paraphrase (p. xiii). Although whole passages echo Khoury’s text, Elyas censures his practice of noting parallels to biblical passages in the footnotes, creating the impression that they form the “basis for the explanation of the Koran” (p. xiii), unthinkable of course from the Islamic perspective.

The translation is of consistently high quality and is stays close to the original both in vocabulary and syntax, resulting in a readable German text which nevertheless retains its Arabic flavour and makes the alternative worldview transparent. Neither divine (“Allah”) nor personal names such as “Ibrahim” (Abraham) have been translated into German, so that the Arabic terms will be introduced into the German language.

There remain nevertheless some problem passages which betray the translators’ own position by attempting to pre-empt criticism of Islam and giving a positive twist to the text. The often-quoted verse in Surah 4:34, for instance, in which men are said to have precedence over women because God favours them, is softly rendered “men have a position of responsibility for women.” In Surah 33:59 dealing with the duty of the Prophet’s and the faithful’s wives to cover themselves in order to be “known”, a footnote adds “as free, honourable women, in contrast to dishonourable women”. In the presentday context this implies “uncovered” women are not decent, which involves duress for unveiled Muslim women and is a slur on all non-Muslim women.

The sense of the original text is often restricted by reading into it later Islamic interpretations. A. Khoury and R. Paret’s rendering of the divine command to Ibrahim “Aslim!” (Surah 2:131), “be subject to me”, is for instance here replaced by the technical expression “become a Muslim.” Ibrahim (Abraham) is thus portrayed as though he had been Muslim, buttressing Islam’s claim to be the original authentic religion which Muhammad restored. Similarly when Isa’s (Jesus’) disciples declare in Surah 5:111 that they “are devoted” to him, the footnote supplements “i.e. Muslims”.

The greatest profit will be derived from this edition by those who can read the parallel Arabic original. The translation regrettably fails to indicate the origin of individual Surahs, whether from Mecca (610-622 AD) or Medina (622-632 AD), a lack insufficiently compensated by a list in the appendix, which also includes an index of terms and names giving the translation of Arabic personal names and occasionally but unsystematically their derivation from Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew.

On first sight an unusual edition of the Koran, which will prove useful to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Muslims will appreciate not only the Arabic text but also the division into paragraphs for recitation with signs indicating where to prostrate oneself. Non-Muslims will appreciate the dignified, faithful and “unsmoothed” translation in contrast to some Western versions which tend too readily to identify the Judaeo-Christian terminology admittedly present in the Koran with Judaeo-Christian ideas.

Of the dozen or so translations of the Koran into German the present edition may be regarded as one of the most successful both on optical and linguistic grounds and from the point of view of Islamic theology.