Gilmutdinov: ‘Tatar Culture is Quran-Centric’

31 March 2022


The Quran is undoubtedly an iconic and essential book for all Muslims, including the Tatars. It is therefore not surprising that Tatar religious figures considered the idea to translate the Quran. Prior to this, the Quran and its interpretations (tafsirs) were studied in the Arabic language by isolated members of clergy.


To date, there are around 10 translations. The most common one is Tafsir by Nugmani. Tatars, for the most part not speaking Arabic, read the Quran in the Russian and Tatar languages. What do the Tatar samples in the general trend of returning to one’s own religious traditions mean? How do they differ from one another? Why is the pre-revolutionary heritage ignored by modern translators? These were the questions that underlying the lecture ‘The Quran and its Translations among the Tatars’, held at the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan as part of the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria. The lecturer was Daniyar Gilmutdinov, senior research fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan.


‘Tatar culture is Quran-centric compared to other Muslim peoples, that is, being between the East and the West, the Tatars absorbed, so to speak, European advanced thought and progress and simultaneously preserved the Muslim way of life and Muslim worldview. This made them the first pioneers in the Islamic world and put them at the forefront of history,’ Gilmutdinov noted.


What are the iconic features of Tatar-Muslim culture?


1.Special attention of theologians to the Quran and quotation of the Holy text.

2.The Tatars were the first from Muslim regions to print the Quranic text.

3.The Tatars were the first among Muslim peoples in Russia and the fifth among Muslim peoples in the world to translate the Quran. If we take the world context, the Belarus Tatars translated the Quran into the Arabic script as early as in the XVI century.

4.The first printed translation of the entire Quran into the Tatar language was made under the direct influence of the first world Muslim translation.


‘We can see that the Quran was a showcase for the Tatars (we are talking about both the Arabic text and its translation). And so they demonstrated that showcase without any fear, very early on and, accordingly, had their own intellectual history connected to the sacred text,’ the lecturer explained.


5.Dissemination of ‘shamail’ culture.


The Tatars, unlike all other Muslim peoples and nations, used the culture of shamail very actively. First of all, these were subjects representing excerpts from the Quran. In addition to it, images of mosques or Islamic symbols were also used. All this was called shamail, and the Tatars used them very actively: hung them on the walls, above the door and in mosques.


‘As far as the topic of our meeting is concerned, the study of the Quran for Tatars who were cut off from Islamic civilization as such, studying the Quran became a kind of ‘approach’ to the Muslim world. At the same time, madrasahs acted as a form of socialization, which appeared precisely in the Turkic world, because before that in the Arab caliphates it had been primarily education in the mosque itself’.


‘For instance, the Egyptian Al-Azhar was originally education at a mosque. The Turkic peoples, on the other hand, had separate madrasahs, likewise the Tatars. In those madrasahs, translation of the Quran became a sort of textbook on Islam for children. In general, those translations and even theological texts of the greatest scholars in the Tatar language represented a kind of textbook in which the material was presented point by point from the easiest to the most difficult,’ Daniyar Gilmutdinov explained in the course of the lecture.


The translations of the Quran represented an encyclopedia of Islam, as tafsirs included sira, examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad, prophets’ history from the first to the last prophet, ethics (akhlaq) and so on.


‘Any Tatar tafsir represented the huge inner world of the translator. From these translations alone it is possible to study the personality of the prominent Tatar theologians, because in translating the Quran the maximum number of issues available in Tatar theology was expounded,’ the expert assured.


It is also worth noting that kyissa (legendary narratives of past events) and hikmata (wise statements about the values of life) occupy a significant place in the perception of the sacred texts.


Peculiarities of the form and content of translations of the Quran into the Tatar language before the revolution


What exactly makes the Tatar translations different?


1.Tafsir as a translation. Literal translation was forbidden, i.e. one could not translate the Quran into another language with the same parallel word. It was necessary to bring a person closer to understanding a particular word in a few words. Tafsir appeared as early as the time of companions of the Prophet. At that time, it was of two kinds: based on tradition and based on opinion.


The first Muslim translations appeared only in the XVIII century.


2.The chain of succession.


3.Preference for author’s translations as sources. This served to prove through the sacred texts some views that came from the sacred texts themselves.


4.The numbers of ayats were not displayed.


5.The Arabic text of the Quran was given in brackets, followed by the (non-literal) interpretation itself, explanation of the text.


6.All full translations were published in two volumes.


Classical Tatar tafsirs


1.It was started by Husain Amirkhanov in 1896 with ‘Tafsir Al-Fawaid’.


‘Tafsir Al-Fawaid’ consists of four parts: ‘Tafsir Fawaid. Juz al-awwal’ (1885), ‘Tafsir Fawaid. Juz as-sani min surati al-Ighraf’ (1886), ‘Tafsir Fawaid. Juz as-salis’ (1889) and ‘Tafsir Fawaid. Juz al-rabig’ (1889). The work was published in Kazan in Vyacheslav’s printing house with the help of Mukhammadzarif Amirkhanov, the author’s son. This is the reason why some scholars erroneously attributed the authorship to Husain Amirkhanov’s son.


The first part consists of ‘Introduction’ and commentary of surahs ‘Al-Fatihah’, ‘Al-Baqarah’, ‘Al-‘Imran’, ‘An-Nisa’, ‘Al-Ma’idah’, ‘Al-An’am’, ‘Al-A’raf’. The second part is a commentary on surahs ‘Al-Anfal’, ‘AT-Tawbah’, ‘Yunus’, ‘Hud’, ‘Yusuf’, ‘Ar-Ra’d’, ‘Ibrahim’, ‘Al-Hijr’, ‘An-Nahl’, ‘Al-Isra’. The first two parts of ‘Tafsir Fawaid’ include commentaries on the 15 Juzaz of the Quran, which is exactly half of the Holy Scriptures. The following parts explain the meaning of the second part of the Quran.


‘Tafsir Fawaid’ is a word-for-word translation of the Quran with the addition of a more detailed explanation of some of the ayats. These explanations were borrowed by him from earlier Muslim commentaries on the Quran written in Arabic, Turkish, Tatar and Persian. A phrase from the original Quran in Arabic is given in brackets, and then the commentator translates it into the Tatar language. This method of commenting the Quran was widely spread among the Tatars, and the main manuscript tafsirs in the Tatar language were composed in accordance with this principle. It also formed the basis for printed commentaries in the Tatar language.


2.Tafsir by Nugmani (Qursawi and Nugman bin Amir, published by Barudi).


The most famous Tatar commentary on the Quran compiled in the early XIX century by the two authors, a teacher and a student, ‘Abd al-Nasir al-Qursawi and Nu’man b. Sabit al-Samani.


3. Al-Itkan fi tarjimati l-Quran (Shaykhulislam Hamidi).


The first edition appeared in 1907. The title suggests the idea that the J. Suyuti’s ‘Al-Itkan fi tarjimati l-Quran’ was the source.


4. Taschil al-Bayan fi tafsir al-Quran (Muhammadshadiq Imankuli).


The first edition was in 1910. The main source was one of Central Asia’s most popular tafsirs, Husayn Wa’iz Kashifi’s ‘Mawahibe Aliyah’ (possibly in an Ottoman translation).


A two-volume work by a major and prominent Tatar scholar, theologian and poet, Muhammadshadiq Imankuli, which is one of the most substantial tafsirs of the Quran in the Tatar language. Tatar theologians of the time praised this tafsir as the most reliable exegetical work in their native language. It was popular not only among Muslims of the Volga and Ural regions, but also among Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia.



Ilmira Gafiyatullina

Photo: Creative Commons