Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Koran Translation Provokes Controversy

Demonstrators call for the death of those behind a new, unorthodox translation of the Koran.
By IWPR Afghanistan
When Ghaus Zalmai, a well-known journalist who was working as spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, lent his name and reputation to a new version of the Koran, he may have thought he was performing a service for his fellow Afghan Muslims.

Instead, the book, “A Fluent Translation of the Holy Koran”, has unleashed a storm of public rage that has landed its publisher Zalmai in jail, sent the editor into hiding, and led a council of angry clerics to denounce the book as the work of an international Zionist conspiracy.

The prosecutor says Zalmai now regrets his action. This could not be confirmed by IWPR, since the journalist has been held incommunicado on unspecified charges for over a month.

The book is by no means the first translation of the Koran into Dari. But normally the Arabic text would be included, with a strict line-by-line equivalent as a parallel text.

The “Fluent Translation”, on the other hand, purported to be an attempt to relate Islam’s sacred book in the vernacular.

Critics say that in the process, serious errors were made in rendering the letter and the spirit of the Koran, and are calling for everyone involved in its production to be brought to trial. Angry demonstrators in Kabul, Jalalabad, and other parts of the country have even demanded death for Zalmai and his “collaborators”.

The book, translated by United States resident Qudratullah Bakhtiarinejad and edited by Mullah Qari Mushtaq Ahmad, was printed in 6,000 copies and was about to be distributed. But almost as soon as it was published, it was condemned by the Ministry for the Hajj and Religious Affairs as well as both houses of parliament. They demanded that the government confiscate all of the copies.

The attorney general - Zalmai’s boss - issued an arrest warrant. Zalmai was arrested, reportedly while trying to escape across the border to Pakistan.

Mullah Mushtaq has fled, and is being sought by the police.

The president’s office has set up a commission to assess the book, according to Maulavi Mohammad Siddiq Muslim, the head of the Supreme Court’s fatwa department, which issues rulings on religious matters.

He added that as the commission’s finding have not yet been submitted to the Supreme Court, he could not offer any opinion about the outcome.

But one obvious problem with the book, he said, was the absence of the Arabic text.

“Any copy of the Koran which is published without the Arabic text cannot be called the Koran,” he said.

Maulavi Muslim would not speculate about the possible sentence that might be handed down on the accused, suggesting that it would depend on how important the errors were found to be. “The punishment will depend on the mistakes that have been made and the importance of the chapters,” he said.

In addition, tempers were running high against the book and its authors, so the sentence would also have to take public sentiment into account.

“The accused must be punished in such a way that it becomes a lesson for others,” he added.

But the cleric stopped short of calling for severe punishment for Zalmai.

“Islam is a religion of peace, brotherhood, security, justice and mercy,” he said. “One example of this mercy is that if 99 per cent of what a person says is un-Islamic but one per cent is in line with Islam, he should be judged by that one per cent.”

General Abdul Fatah, director of the prosecutor’s office of the National Directorate of Security, could not specify what criminal charge was being brought against Zalmai.

“The case is still under investigation,” said Fatah. “We cannot say anything until the case is submitted to the court.”

Fatah did say that the accused “regretted his actions”.

The Minister for the Hajj and Religious Affairs, Niamatullah Shahrani, insists that the book was part of a broader plot against Islam.

“This is no accident,” Shahrani told a gathering of angry religious scholars from all over Afghanistan in early November. “The hands of the enemies of Islam lay behind it. This book… is a conspiracy by international Zionism and other groups which is designed to eliminate Islam.”

Shahrani said the book was an insult to all Muslims, particularly Afghans, and appealed to the assembled mullahs not to ignore the conspiracy.

“We demand that the government punish those who were involved in this book,” he said.

On November 25, Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences began a conference called “Scientific Investigation into the Causes and Facets of the Conspiracy to Alter the Koran”. There were many speakers who offered a range of opinions on various topics, but they all agreed on one thing - the book was a product of the enemies of Islam in the West, and Muslims should pay heed.

Dr Sher Ali Zarifi, a member of the Academy of Sciences told IWPR he had distributed chapters of the book to members of the official commission of investigation – which he chairs - for them to study.

“In addition to many mistakes in the literal translation, there were also numerous errors introduced into the meaning of the Holy Koran,” he said.

“First of all, without the Arabic text, no translation can be called the ‘Koran’. The Koran cannot be written in any language but Arabic.”

Arabic is the language that Muslims use in their prayers as well, he pointed out.

“Whoever knowingly says his prayers in any language other than Arabic is ‘zendiq’” he said, using an Arabic term that translates roughly as “heterodox”. “If he prays unconsciously in another language, he is just ‘jahel’[ignorant].”

Zarifi, too, believes that the roots of the offence lie outside Afghanistan.

“The contents of this book show that its writers and editors are members of a religious pluralism movement in the West,” he said.

He pointed to numerous errors of fact, such as one chapter which appears to enjoin Muslims to read both their own holy books and those of other faiths.

“Muslims are forbidden to read the books of other religions,” he said.

Another problem was the role of the prophets, who in Zarifi’s view do not receive the respect due to them in the translated text.

The book also allows Muslims to question certain verses of the Koran, he said, which is strictly prohibited.

“A Muslim is supposed to accept every verse of the Koran,” said Zarifi. “If he doubts any verse, he becomes an infidel.”

Also, he added, the translation does not mention the penalties for certain types of sins, such as stoning as a punishment for adultery. “This [omission] is clearly wrong,” he said.

But Mohammad Hassan Tawhidi, a member of the department of religious jurisprudence and law at the Academy of Sciences, does not entirely agree with Zarifi’s criticisms.

“Some of his arguments are correct but others are very, very weak,” he told IWPR. “It is not a great sin if you make some mistakes in a literal translation of the Koran. It is impossible, I think, to translate the Holy Book the way it is supposed to be, since there is no substitute for the language used in the Koran.”

Tawhidi insisted that the stoning of adulterers is not prescribed in the Koran, but is instead derived from the Hadiths, the various written collections of oral traditions relating to the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

Tawhidi also disputed Zarifi’s remarks about disrespecting the prophets.

“Even those scholars who call themselves experts on religious affairs do not accord the proper respect to all the prophets when they speak on television,” he said. “Why aren’t they arrested as well?”

One researcher on religious affairs who did not want to be named told IWPR that the book was not in fact a new translation at all.

“In 1985 an organisation was established in Jordan, with some hired Farsi- speakers,” he said. “They have a website called which publishes anti-Islamic materials. Ghaws Zalmai and his colleagues just copied the book from this website.”

Dari is very close to the Farsi or Persian language.

This version of events is widely believed in some circles, although it has not been proven.

The researcher said that he did not understand why a good Muslim and well-known journalist like Zalma became involved in such an affair.

“I think maybe Zalmai wanted to do a good service to the Dari language by publishing this book, but he did not understand its contents,” he said. “Maybe he did it to make a name for himself, or for money. In any case, it is difficult to judge.”

But many people, even those who do not usually follow current events, are doing just that.

Razia, a university student in Kabul, does not look as if she is a close follower of Islamic principles. He heavy make-up, shirt and jeans are at odds with the strict Muslim dress code observed in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, she is indignant about the translation and its perpetrators.

“I can’t think of anything better for Ghaus Zalmai than that he should be hanged in the public square. It would be a lesson to others like him,” she said.

But a friend of Zalmai who would not disclose his name said he has known the journalist since childhood and cannot believe he was ill-intentioned.

“I swear to God that Ghaus Zalmai is a pious Muslim and believes in Islam, and I think he has become unwittingly involved in this game,” he said.

“Zalmai was unaware of the contents of the book – he’s a journalist, not an Arabic scholar or a specialist in Islamic matters. I appeal to the government to give this man real justice.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s local editor in Kabul.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?