Home / news / The Qur’an translation controversy between Turkey and Egypt in the early 20th century: an ambiguous and established debate

The Qur’an translation controversy between Turkey and Egypt in the early 20th century: an ambiguous and established debate


Through our attempt to date the “theories of the translation of the Noble Qur’an,” which occupy the first chapter of our book, “Landmarks of an original theory for the translation of the Noble Qur’an,” we stood at a decisive stop in this regard, which is the intellectual debate that erupted in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. We could describe him after nearly a century as both ambiguous and founder.

However, if the debate is in the early ages, it largely lacks a translational reality that can constitute an objective context for thinking and judging it, as the 20th and 21st centuries witnessed a set of transformations that will cast a shadow over the theoretical perceptions and intellectual debate on the subject.

Fitna, translation of the Noble Qur’an between Turkey and Egypt

An argument has occurred; Rather, confrontations within these elites, or confrontations with the authority that caused exile and abandonment of high-ranking positions in the state, in the midst of the transformations that the Islamic world witnessed in the early twentieth century, and the growth of the colonial tide materially and intellectually after the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, and the growing national tide in Turkey, and in Egypt after that against the background of differences between the reformist and conservative intellectual elites.

Therefore, despite the fact that the controversy that accompanied the translation of the Noble Qur’an coincided with the time and the parties representing the opposing positions in both Turkey and Egypt, the difference between the context was evident, between a country that witnessed a radical change in government after the end of the First World War, where the caliphate was abolished. The Ottoman Empire announced the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1922, and began with him an official institutional campaign of a nationalist, secular, extremist and closed nature related to the language (changing the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Latin letters) or the devotional religious sphere of the Muslim majority (stopping the call to prayer and preventing the performance of prayer at the Hagia Sophia Mosque in February 21, 1925, with what this edifice has a very great position in the hearts of the Turks as a symbol of the conquest of Constantinople and its attachment to Islamic geography), and on February 21, 1925, the Turkish government led by Ataturk decided to read the Holy Qur’an in Turkish instead of Arabic, and this translation was read instead From the original Arabic text on the ears of mosques.

However, the Turkish context in which there appears to be a conflict between two completely different visions of the country; A vision that sees Turkey as a part of the Islamic world, rather it has been the bearer of the caliphate for 7 centuries. Therefore, its dealings with the Noble Qur’an should not deviate from what the country followed before the proclamation of the Republic. The second view was an extremist secular nationalism that embarked on an organized campaign to break with the country’s imperial past in all its manifestations. Consequently, the threat that some religious elites were sensing about components they consider essential to the identity of the Turkish people was, in fact, justified.

As for Egypt, it was living under “imperfect independence” after the Treaty of 1920, which followed the 1919 revolution, which kept the English on many privileges, and this was not related to the Turkish context, in which the Ataturk bulldozer was operating at its maximum capacity.

In any case, this discussion that appeared in Turkey spread to the countries of the Islamic world, especially in Egypt. Because it is prepared to discuss these issues more than other countries in the Islamic world. Sheikh Mustafa Sabri contributed to the debate, as he wrote the 130-page book “The Question of Translating the Qur’an” in 1931, in which he discussed the arguments of Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi and Muhammad Farid Wajdi regarding the permissibility of translating the Qur’an and worshiping it in prayer, and he demonstrated that in terms of “corruption”. Legitimacy with ample evidence, warning of the dangers arising from the issue.

One of the supporters of Sheikh Al-Maraghi was Counselor Muhammad Farid Wagdy, who was at that time director of Al-Azhar magazine. Wagdy collected his views in a research larger than that of Sheikh Al-Maraghi, and published it under the title “Scientific evidence on the permissibility of translating the meanings of the Qur’an into foreign languages.” The second from Al-Azhar magazine, in which I was concerned with responding to the opposition, especially Sheikh Muhammad Suleiman and Sheikh Muhammad Mustafa al-Shater.

Assessment and lessons

We decided to study this topic in two broad headings:

1- Confusion

Under this heading, it can be said in editing the main point of disagreement on the issue of the translation of the Noble Qur’an, where the reformist movement, represented by Sheikh Al-Maraghi and Farid Wagdy, supported the decision of the Government of the Turkish Republic to adopt the translation into Turkish of the Holy Qur’an, and to adopt it in the recitation and prayers imposed in mosques, This was rejected by the second team led by Sheikh Mustafa Sabry. Each group provided evidence for the correctness of its opinion, whether from the doctrinal, legislative, historical or social point of view.

Accordingly, the focus of the dispute was not the translation as we see it today. That is, transferring the Qur’anic text to other languages ​​(which is not the Qur’an, but rather has a ruling of interpretation) to bring the message of the Holy Qur’an closer to those who do not know the Arabic language at a level sufficient to read the Qur’an text in the Arabic language Rather, the subject of discussion is replacing the text of the Noble Qur’an with translation, and using it for all purposes related to the original, whether from a legislative, ritual, devotional or other aspect. This is what makes it completely different from the current discussions in the theory of applied translation on the Holy Qur’an, which tend to the first purpose mentioned above. Even Sheikh Mustafa Sabry, in his book, does not object to an approximate interpretation-oriented translation of the meanings of the Qur’an with its limitations and purposes that cannot be deviated from.

In spite of the fact that the discussion sought legal evidence and expanded in depth in a place, especially with regard to the unseen “theological” doctrinal split of the topic on the Qur’an written in the Arabic language, which is found in the preserved panel, as well as presentations and ideas about the social and historical situation of the Islamic peoples, foreign language, This debate remains an ad hoc discussion. The Turkish case can be described as unique in its eradicating, dissolving dealings with the national language and religious beliefs of the majority of the population, even in comparison with communist regimes with an atheistic tendency. Rather, the nature of these debates gives the impression that the matter was related to the concerns of the Egyptian intellectual elites, who entered into the midst of this issue, and the debates between conservatives and national reformists, who built part of their struggle as more than the result of a social reality witnessing an earthquake in its faith and identity, like the Turkish case.

2- The foundational aspect

After a long discussion and controversy, the matter ended with the opening of a dialogue to reach a working formula, after the Al-Azhar Sheikhdom decided to set an accurate Arabic interpretation in preparation for its accurate translation by a selected technical committee. The Interpretation Committee met several times headed by the Mufti of Egypt at that time, and drafted a “constitution” that would abide by it in She then sent this constitution to senior scholars and Islamic groups in other countries to seek their views on it, in order to make this Arab interpretation come out in the form of what the imams have agreed upon. After that, the committee decided to lay down rules for the way it follows in the interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qur’an. This interpretation, which was called “the chosen one in the interpretation of the Noble Qur’an,” has actually come into being. The Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Cairo printed it, and wrote in its introduction what indicates that it is A brief interpretation, editor, written in Arabic, in preparation for translation into foreign languages.

Commenting on this point, it can be said that the Sheikhdom of Al-Azhar has adopted the opinion in support of the interpretative translation, and has prepared an interpretation of the Holy Qur’an keen to obtain the greatest consensus from scientific references, in a first step in preparing the translation. In the second place, this debate was the first of its kind in the context of the Arab and Islamic region’s adoption of the European nation-state model, which is based mainly on a saying attributed to Queen Isabella of Castile, “one land, one people, and one language”. In its linguistic aspect, this national “doctrine” clashed with the Holy Quran and its Arabic linguistic characteristic, which transcends the incident country borders. It represented the extreme nationalist trend, accompanied by a sharp atheist tendency, in a unique situation in Islamic history, including the position of Muslim peoples at the forefront of the message, although Egypt was living in a completely different situation. However, the ideological and political consensus of the “reform”, “liberal” or “national” wing made it stand in support of a position; Rather, Ataturk’s decisions were justified as a victory for Islam, as Sheikh Sabri indicated in his aforementioned book, but this approach did not meet with a wide response. Because it contradicts a given that we consider structural in the Muslim mind about the relationship of revelation to the Arabic language.

On the other hand, this position put the Islamic intellectual elites in front of the problematic approach of this issue in the new political and intellectual context, and this initiative resulted in the authoring of an elected interpretation of the Holy Qur’an in preparation for the translation and a set of recommendations on this process.

In sum, the “fitnah” of the translation of the Noble Qur’an, which represented a topic that filled the world and occupied people for a long time in Egypt, even some newspapers put titles of “translation of the Qur’an also” on articles dealing with the topic, indicating that it is a special case that cannot be withdrawn on the issue Automatically, it has contributed to encouraging public debate in other countries on this topic, and noting the need to rationalize it within the framework of general Islamic principles to achieve the desired benefits and avoid possible pitfalls. However, these efforts have not evolved with the passage of time into research institutions that go beyond the narrow national horizon, and respond to the urgent needs of a more interconnected, interdependent and complex world.

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