Monday, April 15, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russian Translations of Koran Continue to Play a Large Role in Former Soviet Space

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 15 – Because more than a quarter of the 300 million people who speak Russian as first or second language are Muslims, Russian-language translations play an enormous role in the religious life of the faithful not only in the Russian Federation but across the former Soviet space.

            In the new issue of “Medina al-Islam,” Mikhail Yakubovich, who himself has done a translation of the Koran, begins by pointing to the continuing impact of the Russian-language translation of the Koran prepared by Ignaty Krachkovsky in 1963, an edition that has since gone through more than 37 editions totaling at least two million copies (

            Krachkovsky’s was neither the first nor the last such publication in Russia and its neighbors.  There were five Russian-language editions of the Koran issued before the Bolshevik revolution, and there have been 14 since that time, one in Gorbachev’s time and 13 since the collapse of the communist system.

            Many of the post-Soviet renderings of the Koran into non-Russian languages have drawn on Krachkovsky’s work – and almost all the former Soviet republics and formerly occupied Baltic states now have them in their respective national languages -- even though most present themselves as translations from the Arabic original, Yakubovich suggests.

            Other early Russian translations, including those by Dmitry Boguslavsky and Gordy Sablukov, have also had a role in promoting an understanding of Islam, having been republished in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.  And still others have been republished as well over the last decade.

            Over the last decade, the Russian translation of the Koran prepared by Elmir Kuliyev, an Azerbaiani scholar, has also had an impact. Over eight years, it has gone through approximately 20 editions and been published in a variety of post-Soviet countries.  In 2013, it was even published in a large edition in Ukraine.

            This continuing role for Russian-language Korans beyond the borders of the Russian Federation is interesting in two respects. On the one hand, of course, most Muslims believe that the Koran exists as an integral document only in Arabic and thus, when possible, try to read it in that language.

            And on the other, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the King Faud Center in Saudi Arabia poured money into translations of the Koran into the languages of the post-Soviet countries, including Azerbaiani, Kazakh, Kyrgy, and Uzbek. And other sources backed such translations into Georgian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Taikistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.

            But despite this, Yakubovich argues, “Russian translations of the Koran have retained their popularity” because of the traditional role of the Russian language and because of the authority of Russian Islamic scholarship.  Indeed, paradoxically, an intensified interest in Islam in many of these countries helps promote the retention of the Russian language there.

            Moreover, he continues, the continuing role of Russian translations and the expanding role of non-Russian ones can help promote the integration of the populations of the post-Soviet states because the interpretation of the Koran – and any translation is by definition an interpretation, he notes – must be a combined effort.

            As Elmir Kuliyev has said, “there cannot be a canonical translation of the Koran” because that book exists as itself only in Arabic, but translations, to the extent they reveal aspects of that text to a larger audience are important in and of themselves, especially if they are shared across linguistic lines.

            The continuing role of the Russian-language translations of the Koran helps promote that exchange and thus it helps overcome the divisions within the Islamic umma and the communication of the nature of Islam to non-Muslim audiences, “an especially important task which can contribute to the establishment of religious accord among citizens of the CIS.”

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