Making the Qurʾan Turkish: Translation and Power in the Ottoman Empire – By Micah Hughes

Micah Hughes on M. Brett Wilson’s Translating the Qurʾan in an Age of Nationalism

M. Brett Wilson, Translating the Qur’an in an Age of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, 2014, 352pp., $85
M. Brett Wilson, Translating the Qurʾan in an Age of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, 2014, 352pp., $85
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What could be more unassuming and unexceptional than translation? It is simply everywhere and often taken-for-granted. From ancient, must-read “classics” to the most groundbreaking works of “world literature,” translation infuses and is integral to most educational curricula, religious rites, and cultural encounters today. But, the commonsense nature of something so inconspicuous as translation is precisely the kind of thing that makes it provocative, telling, and important for historical research.

Brett Wilson’s well-researched monograph, Translating the Qurʾan in an Age of Nationalism, treats, for the first time in English, the history of translation of the Qurʾan into Turkish and the lively debates that surrounded it. Following the significant work of Travis Zadeh in The Vernacular Qurʾan: Translation and the Rise of Persian Exegesis, Wilson adds to a growing historical and theoretical engagement with the distinct textual, legal, and practical histories of the Qurʾan in specific linguistic communities. More than just a reception history, the book attends to a series of issues, concerns, anxieties, and affective sensibilities that were evoked in the “problem-space” of printing, translation, and commentary in vernacular languages during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I borrow “problem-space” from anthropologist David Scott’s masterful work, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. In Scott’s own words, a “‘problem-space’ demarcate[s] a discursive context, a context of language… It is a context of argument and, therefore, one of intervention. A problem-space, in other words, is an ensemble of questions and answers around which a horizon of identifiable stakes (conceptual as well as ideological-political stakes) hangs” (4). Scott’s theoretical insight acts as a heuristic device to help bring to light some of the important political, theological, and historical stakes that Wilson’s book has done a fine job of uncovering and documenting.

Theoretically, the problem-space of translation can be viewed as a practice that has a history and a conceptual genealogy in the Foucaultian sense, or following Alasdair MacIntyre, as a node in a nexus of arguments and reasons within a tradition of inquiry and practice. The issue of translation is more than the problem of literal versus literary — the decision to render one word, phrase, idiom, or sentence from one language into a corresponding, appropriate, or poetic equivalent in the target language. As the anthropologist Talal Asad has argued, translation carries with it questions of power, culture, and context in addition to meaning and interpretation. “Translation is thus (like history) at once a sequence of human acts and a narrative recounting it, both being and representation.” Asad, himself a genealogist of anthropological concepts and forms of life, notes that translation historically referred not only to a discursive practice but also to a medieval religious action of physically moving saintly relics, and thus their powers, from one location to another. It was never a “neutral representation; it was situated within a particular way of life and a particular set of practices.” Similarly nineteenth-century modernization, reform, and nationalism might also be read through the topos of translation — one internal to discourses of the Islamic tradition as they were practiced, debated, and ultimately translated from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic.

Translating the Qurʾan takes the reader through the intricate debates, historical moments, and personages centrally involved in the production of the Turkish Qurʾan. Beginning with the movement away from hand-written manuscripts towards large scale, mass printing, Wilson’s book carefully describes the ritual, political, and social concerns that surrounded new technologies of the book and book production. While this is a mainstay of the book’s historical narrative, Wilson’s central claim is that translation ultimately reveals something about what Ottoman Muslims in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw as crucial to their development qua Muslims in the age of modernization and nationalism. Its proponents considered printing and translation a necessary step in securing the modernity of Muslims in the Ottoman Empire in light of a swiftly changing imperial and socio-political landscape. In short, this is the “problem-space” that Wilson opens to the reader.

The monograph is rich in detail from both secondary and archival sources in Turkish, English, and Arabic. Many figures discussed deserve their own book-length treatments to do justice to the intricacies of their lives. Wilson brings together a whole cadre of oppositional intellectuals, authors, poets, statesmen, and religious scholars such as Namık Kemal, Ali Suavi, Abdullah Cevdet, and Mehmet Akif Ersoy who teetered on the brink of Tanzimat-era Ottoman reform and early Republican modernization. These characters crisscross throughout the narrative forming dense webs of argumentation for and against printing and translating the Qurʾan at various moments often forming unlikely alliances.

Debates about the nature of printing and translation were so central to questions of shifting authority within Ottoman lands and beyond precisely because they raised the question of modernization and change in such stark terms. With new technologies from the West, how could Muslims be sure that these printing presses and the materials used to build them followed the various standards of purity that would make their use permissible? How could one ensure that the printed or translated Qurʾan was free from error if not under the supervision and controlled pen of a master scribe or Muslim scholar trained in the arts of calligraphy or commentary? Those in favor of Qurʾan printing and translation into vernacular languages made the argument along reformist or nationalist lines, insisting on its necessity for the growth of educated and nationally conscious publics. A Turkish Qurʾan or Turkish commentary on the Qurʾan, while nothing like the inimitable, revealed Arabic text, could still serve a didactic purpose for the common person who did not have the ability to read in the primary languages of Islamic education such as Persian and Arabic. Furthermore, new production technologies served the purposes of modernization; all the while a Turkish Qurʾan created an educated public through the use of what would become the national language of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, just as Turkish was made the official language of the Ottoman State bureaucracy in 1876. These were the political and social stakes that hung in the balance.

These positions were not static. There was neither one consensus position from those who supposedly represented the clerical class of Muslim scholars nor an equal, but opposite, position on the side of reform, modernization, or nationalism. A historical taxonomy of this sort obfuscates more than it elucidates. Self-styled Islamists could be both classically trained scholars as well as members of opposition parties against the Sultan or his representatives. Furthermore, given the change in circumstances from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth — war on multiple fronts, changing constitutional regimes, insurrection, occupation, revolution, and counter-revolution — it was inevitable that the positions and the historical agents that held them would transform in light of events that were impossible to predict.

Here is one example of such a shifting problem-space: Wilson recounts a story concerning some critical reviews given of historian and philosopher İzmirli İsmail Hakkı’s Turkish rendering of the Qurʾan (1927) during the early years of the Turkish Republic. Critics found the text to be a sound piece of scholarship that lacked only in terms of its aesthetic appeal; it simply did not do justice to the rhythmic beauty of the original Arabic text. This critical reaction was a notable departure from evaluations of other, contemporaneous translations that failed to transfer the meanings of the verses faithfully according to various interpretive traditions. Throughout the book, Wilson discusses these “failed” translators such as Süleyman Tevfık (1865-1939), Hüseyin Kazım Kadri (1870-1934), and Cemil Sait (1872-1942), who came under harsh criticism for their lack of training and inability to properly render the Arabic Qurʾan into accessible Turkish prose. While these criticisms were common amongst their detractors in the religious and scholarly classes (ulema), they were remarkably absent from criticisms leveled at İzmirli İsmail Hakkı. Noting that his text did lack the aesthetic dimension found in the Arabic Qurʾan (something no one could replicate anyway), he pointed out, in defense of his project, that what mattered was the reliability of the translated meaning. Was the text sufficient for deriving Islamic legal rulings and giving the reader the guidance that he or she sought? If so, thought İsmail Hakkı, then the translation was a sufficient one.

Similarly, variegated practices and different modes of argumentation marked the problem-space of Qurʾan translation throughout the “Muslim world” at large. As Wilson demonstrates, debates and concerns about the permissibility of Qurʾan translation varied across geographical boundaries taking on different tones and expressing particular anxieties accordingly. To give an example, while the denizens of the late Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic expressed many concerns about the reliability of the Turkish Qurʾan both in terms of aesthetics and meaning/interpretation as with the case of Ismail Hakkı, Egyptians who embraced translation and new print technologies did so with the hope and expectation of making Egypt a “new centre of Islamic authority,” Wilson argues that the geographical differences between reformist debates in Egypt and Turkey diverged along nationalist lines: Egypt, which was under British control, sought to export Islam to non-Arabic speaking and non-Muslim communities thus making Egypt a center for Islamic learning and missionary activity, while Turkish reformists intended to nationalize Islam according to their desire to separate themselves from the larger “Muslim world;” yet, there was protest from the cadre of Muslim scholars whose livelihood was under threat by such transformations.

This account illustrates just a few of the transformations that occurred in Turkish and intra-Muslim debates about the translatability of the Qurʾan in the transition period from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Furthermore, it shows the discursive landscape that was never reducible to simple support for or opposition against printing and translation. This, I think, is one of the most powerful findings of Translating the Qurʾan. Issues of meaning, translation, aesthetics, and usability in ritual acts were central concerns galvanizing both the desire to produce a Turkish Qurʾan as well as reactions to the Qurʾans that were produced, but support and opposition were never easily definable based solely one one’s position within the social, religious, or bureaucratic artifice of the Ottoman and Turkish state. The scholar must be attuned to the ends and goals sought in each argument in order to discern the logic that drove each position, something Wilson carefully undertakes throughout.

Picture of Illuminated Qur’an page in Arabic from Ottoman scribe via WikimediaCommons
Picture of Illuminated Qur’an page in Arabic from Ottoman scribe via WikimediaCommons

Translating the Qurʾan is not only a story about Islamic authority transforming within competing language games of nationalism, but it is also about Pan-Islamic connections that fostered under, alongside, and through such nationalist discourses that were made apparent in Ottoman/Turkish debates about printing and translation. Printed Qurʾans were a valuable good and a tool for increasing loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph as well as policing the boundaries of “Ottoman orthodoxy” by demonstrating the “benevolence” of the Ottomans towards their Sunni counterparts through intra-Muslim connections especially in the Indian Ocean. In this way, the text adds not just to the fields of Qurʾanic or Turkish studies, but also to global approaches to Islamic history more generally.

It will come as no surprise that Wilson’s book positively contributes to a growing body of work that seeks to ground histories of Islam as a discursive tradition in the particular arguments and historical debates about exactly what that tradition is and how it should be practiced. Concerns and anxieties surrounding authority, practice, and meaning might have drawn on languages of universalism but were always articulated in specific locations, in the midst of particular events that gave them a sense of urgency that inspired practitioners as well as critics. Historians of the Ottoman and Turkish long nineteenth century as well as genuinely interested readers will find something useful in all stages of Translating the Qurʾan. Some questions do linger about the story of nationalism or implicit theories of translation that sustain Wilson’s narrative, yet remain unaddressed. We, the readers, are left to infer the ways in which nationalism, modernity, and translation play out in the theoretical background of the book, except in a few, sparse moments. Nationalism studies and translation studies have produced a strong body of literature on the subject, yet the reader is left wondering where the author stands on a number of issues concerning the nature of Ottoman modernity and Turkish nationalism, both as concepts and practices, historically and in the present. Yet, the monograph continues to impress in terms of its breadth and detailed engagement with a complicated history.

More than a century has passed since many of these debates began. Translation no longer seems to be the problem it once was in Turkey — translations are easily accessible, even on smart phones. It is not uncommon to sit beside a fellow passenger reading the Turkish Qurʾan commentary Hakk Dini, Kur’an Dili off an iPhone app on one of Istanbul’s many buses or tramways. This does not mean that issues or concerns around translation no longer exist, but like any struggle within a tradition, the terms, actors, anxieties, and problems shift, take on new articulations, and become something other, differentiated, a new problem-space. Translating the Qurʾan in an Age of Nationalism reminds us that things were not always as they are today and that concepts now taken for granted have long and complicated histories, belonging to and forming problem-spaces of language where power, change, and debate are the rule rather than the exception.