Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Court Declares Russian Translation of Koran Extremist, Sparking Outrage and Raising Questions

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 24 – A Novorossiisk district court’s declaration that a recent Russian translation of the Koran is extremist has outraged Muslims, experts, and rights activists in expected ways, but it has also forced some close to the regime to backpedal and caused Muslims to confront the issue of difference between the Koran and translations of its meanings.

meanings of the Koran prepared by Azerbaijani religious philosopher Elmir Kuliyev on commission from Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd Complex for Publishing the Koran to be “extremist” under the terms of Russian law (kavpolit.com/bessmyslennyj-zapret-smyslov/).

            Not surprisingly, Muslims were overwhelmingly outraged with many asking “what next?” (See ansar.ru/society/2013/09/23/43531, interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=52739, http://damir-hazrat.livejournal.com/107895.html  

            (Perhaps equally not surprisingly, there were a few Muslim leaders who accepted the court’s finding as just, describing the translation as infected by “Wahhabist” ideas (kavpolit.com/kritiki-vaxxabitskogo-perevoda-korana-melkie-stukachi-prozhiravshie-v-tri-gorla-saudijskie-dengi/).)

            Their views were echoed by religious rights experts like SOVA’s Aleksandr Verkhovsky and leading Russian specialists on Islam (kavpolit.com/bessmyslennyj-zapret-smyslov/). Verkhovsky was especially blunt: “There is no sense in the decision of the court,” he said. “It was not only illegal but illiterate and scandalous.”

            The judge in the case, Gennady Chanov, told Kavpolit.com that much of the reaction was unjustified.  “It is impossible to consider that the Koran itself was prohibited,” he said. “This is only an interpretation of its translation which was made in Saudi Arabia that has been recognized as extremist literature.”

            The judge’s declaration has satisfied few of those involved.  On the one hand, it has prompted Roman Silantyev, the deputy head of the Russian justice ministry’s experts council and a man whom many Muslims view with disdain, to renew his call for the preparation of a “white list” of Muslim books that must not be declared extremist (interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=52743).

Unless such a list is prepared by the MVD, FSB and procuracy, he said, “the danger ill remain of declaring as extremist normal publications,” a concern that Silantyev and three leading Muslim figures, Talgat Tajuddin of the MSD of Russia, Shafig Pshikkhachev, representative of the North Caucasus muftiate in Moscow, and Farid Salman, head of the ulema council of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord, have raised before.

Among the books these religious figures have requested to be exempt from any finding of extremism are translations of the Koran, the hadith, and related materials. Some experts would like to add all ancient religious texts to this list, pointing out that under Russian law, “no one can exclude” that the Bible – which is also in translation -- could be declared extremist at some point (ng.ru/ng_religii/2013-09-23/3_kartblansh.html).

            And on the other, the judge’s decision and especially his effort to distinguish between the Koran and translations of its meaning has prompted some Muslim experts to focus on an issue that increasingly is dividing the Islamic world.

            For most of the 14 centuries since the time of the prophet, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have been Arabs, and the Arabs have insisted that the Koran exists only in Arabic because it was dictated to Mohammed in that language by the Archangel Michael.  All translations are therefore only “interpretations” and not the Koran itself.

            That is still the position of the Saudis and many Muslim leaders, but that situation is changing.  Now, the Arabs are a minority and an ever smaller one at that of the Muslim umma, and the number of translations has skyrocketed. Some muftis are asking how to determine which translations are “canonical,” a question no one would have asked a generation ago.

 Even more intriguingly, the spread of vernacular translations, labeled as “interpretations” or not, has prompted some analysts to as whether the translation of the Koran into vernacular languages may have comparable impact on Islamic societies to that which the translation of the Bible into German and English had on European ones.

Muslims in the Russian Federation have generally stood aside from this debate, although there has been much discussion about the impact of the shift from Tatar to Russian in religious services in the mosques in Russian cities, a shift necessitated by the influx of non-Tatars from the Caucasus and Central Asia there.

But the Novorossiisk decision has prompted Vyacheslav Polosin, deputy director of the Foundation for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education, to weigh in on this debate and to declare in the pages of “Medina” that he has never liked the expression “translation of meanings of the Koran” but sees them as efforts to get closer to the original meaning of that work (idmedina.ru/books/history_culture/minaret/14/polosin.htm).

“The problems connected with the translation of the Koran into Russian,” he writes, “begin even before an approach to the Arabic text.” They begin with the meanings of the word “translation,” a term that can refer both to a literal translation that obscures meaning or a less literal one that reveals it.

Polosin’s words may be the most important consequence of the Novorossiisk court decision because if Russia’s Muslims come to accept the idea that the Koran exists in all vernacular languages including their own, that will mean both the nationalization of the faith and the erection of a new barrier to the spread of Arabic influence into that country.

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