The first complete Russian Qurʾān translation (1716)
The first complete translation of the Qurʾān into Russian was published in 1716 at the Imperial Typography in Saint Petersburg. Rather than the original Arabic, the unknown translator chose a French text as the source, namely André Du Ryer’s popular translation L’Alcoran de Mahomet (1647). Issued in the second half of Tsar Peter the Great’s reign (1682-1725), this Qurʾān translation was more than just a symbol of the growing aspirations of the house of Romanov to expand the territory of the country at the expense of its Muslim neighbours. Printed in the newly introduced civic script that replaced the previously dominant Church Slavonic alphabet, this translation also marked broader political, social and cultural transformations that were under way in Russia at the turn of the eighteenth century.
Qurʾān translations before Peter I
Despite Russia’s long history of diplomatic and trade relations with Muslim countries, as well as the existence of a large Muslim population within the country’s borders, no complete Qurʾān translation seems to have existed before the eighteenth century. The Mohammedan Book – as the Qurʾān was known in pre-modern Russia – enjoyed a wide circulation nevertheless. Not only was it regularly read and copied by Muslim inhabitants of the empire, but it was also used by Russian Christian authorities for their administrative purposes. The flourishing of international trade and establishment of diplomatic relations with Muslim countries in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries presented the Russian authorities with new problems of a legal nature: it was necessary to guarantee verbal assurances given by the foreign Muslim diplomats. In order to ensure the loyalty of incoming ambassadors from Muslim countries, as well as that of local Muslim nobility who entered into Russian service, the authorities made the Muslims swear an oath on the Qurʾān. The verses that were most frequently repeated in this context were also translated into Russian. The first recorded translation of this kind, made in the seventeenth century, is verse 91 of the sūrah “The Bee”, which reads as follows: “Fulfil any pledge you make in God’s name and do not break oaths after you have sworn them, for you have made God your surety: God knows everything you do”.
Translators from Russia’s Foreign Chancellery (Posol’skii prikaz) also frequently had to render Qurʾānic verses quoted in letters that arrived from Muslim correspondents. For instance, in December 1572, a Russian messenger returned to Moscow from his voyage to Constantinople, bringing with him a letter from Sultan Selim II addressed to Tsar Ivan IV. The letter, preserved in its Russian translation, contains text which scholars later identified as sūrah 112 (“Sincerity”).
Drawing level with Europe
Heightened interest in the full content of the Qurʾān emerged after the accession of Tsar Peter I to the throne in 1687. He sought to improve Russia’s standing as a maritime power by gaining control over the Black and Caspian seas, which were at that time part of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires respectively. In devising his tactics, the Tsar aspired to gather knowledge not only about the military forces and existing infrastructure of the enemy, but also about the culture and, in particular, the religion of the neighbours. Historical documents reveal that plans to translate the Qurʾān into Russian existed already at the end of the seventeenth century. A letter dated 28 September 1697 informs the Tsar that a former Muslim who had recently converted to Christianity was unfortunately unable to undertake the translation project, as the text of the Qurʾān was written in “high” Arabic and thus unintelligible to the convert.
It would be a mistake, however, to consider the interest in translating the Qurʾān into Russian only from a geostrategic perspective. The 1716 edition, written in the new civic script instead of Church Slavonic, is also a manifestation of the transition to new cultural paradigms that took place under Peter the Great. Under his rule, Western European culture gained enormous prestige – numerous works, books, and documents were translated into Russian; meanwhile, knowledge of languages such as French and German came into vogue among Russia’s elite. Alongside classical religious education, the new type of “modernised” intelligentsia was encouraged to undertake training in secular subjects, often by attending classes at foreign universities. Following Peter the Great’s policy of forced Westernisation launched at the end of the seventeenth century, the production of translations of literary works was supposed to open the “window to Europe”. Books purchased in Europe streamed into the country. New themes, images and characters – including those originating from Muslim literature (translated into Russian from English and French) – entered the Russian book market and took root, giving birth to new literary experiments in Russian literature and arts. The translation of the Qurʾān was thus a step towards making international literary heritage available in Russian, which was a part of broader cultural transformations undertaken by the Russian authorities with the goal of “Europeanising” the country.
The 1716 Qurʾān
A complete translation of the Qurʾān eventually appeared in 1716. Along with the printed version, there exist both a proof version and a typeset version with comments and suggested changes from the editors. The two manuscripts are preserved in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts in Moscow.
The first page of the printed edition reveals a rather lengthy title of the book: The Alkoran about Mahomet, or the Turkish creed. Translated from French into Russian. Printed by order of his Tsarist Majesty in the St. Petersburg printing house in 1716, in the month of December. This 350-page manuscript begins with “A letter to the Reader”, which is a Russian translation of Du Ryer’s foreword to his own book of 1647. In this letter, the translator explains the division of the book into chapters and verses. Between the lines, the reader can sense the translator’s contempt for the improbability of Muhammad’s story, according to which Muhammad, allegedly unable to read and write, received the word of God. The first foreword is followed by the essay “On the Turkish creed”, also originally written by Du Ryer in French. The essay provides a brief overview of key Islamic practices, briefly covering the order of prayers, the main fasting period and feasts, rules regarding marriage, and the upbringing of children. The essay also provides information on the geography of the Arab lands, emphasising the importance and sacred status of the cities of Mecca and Medina. Du Ryer – and in turn, the Russian translator – briefly discusses the status of Jesus in Islam, noting that although Muslims see Jesus as one of the great prophets, they deny his divine nature.
The main body of the text consists of 114 unnumbered chapters. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader finds the title, information on the number of verses to follow, and the period when the chapter was revealed: before or after the emigration of the Prophet Muḥammad from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 (i.e. the hiǧra ; known as the Meccan and Medinan verses, respectively). Some chapters also contain glosses (brief explanations and comments) originally provided by Du Ryer and consequently translated into Russian.
The readers of Du Ryer’s text had already pointed towards a large number of flaws in the French translation of the Qurʾān. Not only were these inaccuracies and errors copied into the Russian text, but also new errors were introduced in the process of translation. The Russian literary scholar Petr Pekarskii (1827-1872), who reviewed the 1716 translation, left the following comment (1862): The translation is done without omissions; only some clumsiness is noticeable in the transmission of certain French words and phrases, which is already evident from the title. L’Alcoran de Mahomet was published in Russian as The Alkoran about Mahomet; that is, the preposition de is not understood as a [marker of possession], but as a preposition [‘about’].
The text indeed contains many mistakes that show the translator’s limited knowledge of both the history of Islam and the French language. For instance, the name of the magic animal Buraq that transported the Prophet Muhammad to heaven in the tale of the night journey (isrāʾ) is rendered as “Biurablank” in the Russian translation. This is essentially a transliteration of the French original “Sur un Burac Blanc” (De Ryer p. 254), i.e. “On a White Buraq”. Equally, the title of the second sūrah “The Cow” may leave the Russian reader puzzled: the French “Le Chapitre de la Vache escrit à la Meque” (“the Chapter of the Cow written in Mecca”) is translated into Russian as “The chapter written from Vashi to Mekka”. Such blatant inaccuracies, though they obscure the understanding of the text, shed some light on the identity of the translator. Since neither the existing copies nor the pre-print manuscripts contain ascription of the translator, the authorship of the Russian text has been the subject of continued discussion.
Initially, the 1716 translation was ascribed to Dmitrii Kantemir (also Demetrius Cantemir, 1673-1723), a former governor of Ottoman Moldavia who defected to Russian service in the 1710s. He was regarded as a likely author of the Qurʾān translation thanks to his famous works on Islam and the history of the Ottoman Empire. In 1719, Kantemir produced Sistema de religione et statu Imperii Turcici (“Systematic Presentation on the Religion and State of the Turkish Empire”), translated and printed in Russian in 1722. In this work, Kantemir treats topics such as Muslim calligraphy and the prohibition of forced conversion in Islam; he also compares the status of Sufi dervishes to that of Christian monks. Though a staunch supporter of Christianity and an admirer of European thought, Kantemir praised the Muslim education system and moral values, as well as the literature and music of the Turks, Arabs and Persians he had encountered. Known as Peter I’s friend, it is very likely that the Tsar could have commissioned him to translate the Qurʾān. The main objection to regarding Kantemir as a possible translator is the latter’s poor knowledge of Russian. Historical sources suggest that Kantemir did not know Russian well enough to be able to translate the entire text of the Qurʾān himself. Moreover, as he was fluent in Latin, he would have preferred to work with a Latin edition of the Qurʾān as a source text, rather than a French one.
Another name that continues to be (falsely) associated with the 1716 translation is that of a certain Petr Vasil’evich Pos(t)nikov. What is known about this individual is that he was among the first members of the Russian nobility to enter the newly-formed Slavo-Greco-Latin Academy (founded in 1685) in Moscow, where he studied classical languages. Between 1692 and 1694, he went abroad to continue his education and study medicine at the University of Padua. On his return to Russia in 1698, he briefly worked for both the Apothecary Chancellery and the Slavo-Greco-Latin Academy. However, it was ultimately his ability in languages that was deemed his most valuable skill, praised by the state even above his thorough medical training. Postnikov was eventually transferred to the Foreign Chancellery, where he completed several assignments that required him to travel to Western Europe. During these trips, he fulfilled the required diplomatic missions, as well as collecting desirable foreign commodities such as medicines and books.
New archival documents found in the second half of the twentieth century reveal that there was not one, but two Petr Postnikovs: two brothers. Giving the same names to siblings was not an uncommon tradition in Russia of the seventeenth century. It was the elder Petr Postnikov who studied medicine at Padua University; meanwhile, the younger Petr Postnikov, following in his brother’s steps, also went abroad, but to France, to study sciences and languages. Both brothers therefore received an excellent education in European languages, including French. The elder Postnikov, thanks to his studies at the Academy in Russia, also had substantial knowledge of Latin, Greek and Church Slavonic.
Postnikov’s name has become associated with the 1716 text because of another Qurʾān translation in Russian, produced around the same time and also based on Du Ryer’s French rendition. The Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts contains a manuscript from 1726 that has an ascription with the name of the translator: “Petr Postnikov”. There was an assumption that both versions – both 1716 and 1726 – were made by the same translator. On closer investigation, however, the two texts reveal significant discrepancies, leading scholars to eventually conclude that they must have originated from two different translators.
The 1726 translation
The 1726 translation has never been published. There are two handwritten copies of it that have been preserved, one in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow, both written by the same scribe. The St. Petersburg copy, consisting of 361 pages, is the first volume of a two-volume set; the second volume that should have contained chapters 21-114 is lost. This manuscript, similar in its structure to the 1716 edition, begins with both of Du Ryer’s forewords translated into Russian.
The Moscow copy consists of 780 pages, which makes it a complete Qurʾān translation. This version also has the translator’s name written on the last page. The book, according to the accompanying note, was bound on 2 March 1726. Comparative analysis of the two versions of the manuscript suggests that the St. Petersburg copy is older than the Moscow one, but that both were based on the same source text written by Petr Postnikov. The structure of the Moscow copy is similar to the 1716 translation.
Yet, unlike the 1716 edition, Postnikov’s translation follows the French text closely. The title itself already suggests that the two translations (1716 and 1726) were undertaken by different translators. The title of the 1726 edition reads as The Alkoran or the Muhammadan law. Since the elder Petr Postnikov passed away in 1710, it is likely that it was the younger Petr Postnikov, equally proficient in French, who authored this translation.
A valid question then arises: could the elder Postnikov be the originator of the 1716 translation? Natal’ia Zapol’skaia, a specialist in Slavic languages, has conducted a thorough analysis of the printed and proof versions of the 1716 edition. She suggests that the author most likely had a good command of Latin, but not of French, which resulted in the mistakes of the kind discussed above. Since both Postnikov brothers received an excellent education in French grammar, she argues that it is unlikely they would have made such mistakes. Moreover, a pre-print version with corrections from two editors shows that the translator did not have an in-depth knowledge of Church Slavonic either, since the editors had to correct some grave grammatical errors. The translator’s inadequate knowledge of Church Slavonic further excludes the possibility of attributing authorship to the elder Postnikov brother. The question of authorship of the 1716 translation therefore remains unsolved.
Importance of the first Qurʾān translations into Russian
Though neither the 1716 nor the 1726 translations of the Qurʾān received broad circulation beyond a small circle of Russian literati, they undoubtedly fuelled popular interest in the religion of the Muslim Other. Later in the eighteenth century, another translation of Du Ryer’s work into Russian was produced by poet and writer Mikhail Verevkin (Alkoran of the Arabian Mahomet, 1790). Two years later, interpreter Aleksei Kolmakov produced a Russian translation of the English text The Koran: Commonly Called The Alcoran of Mohammed (1734) by George Sale. Verevkin’s translation in particular left a distinct imprint on the history of Russian literature. Although this work, like the first two translations from French, repeats many of Du Ryer’s mistakes, it has also been praised for its literary qualities. Verevkin’s translation became a source of inspiration for many prominent Russian philosophers and writers. In particular, Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), known as “the father of Russian literature”, enthusiastically employed images of Muslim culture as well as references to the Qurʾān and the life of the Prophet Muhammad in a series of literary works (e.g. Pushkin’s Imitations of the Qurʾān, The Prophet, and In a Secret Cave).
Following Peter the Great’s foreign campaigns – the Russo-Turkish War of 1710 and the Russo-Persian War of 1722-1723 – Russian contacts with Muslims of the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire had only continued to intensify. Moreover, the inclusion of new territories with majority Muslim populations, as well as a series of major Muslim rebellions throughout the eighteenth century, forced the Tsarist government to devise new strategies for governing its non-Christian citizens. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) issued an edict of tolerance (1773) for all “foreign” faiths in the empire and established a Muslim “spiritual assembly” (1788) in an attempt to institutionalise Islam. Furthermore, in 1787, the printing house of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg produced the full text of the Qurʾān in Arabic for free distribution to Russia’s Muslims. The Qurʾān was printed in a script specially made for this purpose that attempted to reproduce the fine handwriting of the best calligraphers. The St. Petersburg (and later Kazan) Qurʾān editions in Arabic received high acclaim in Europe and were used for study purposes and given as gifts till 1834. In that year, German Orientalist Gustav Flügel (1802-1870) published a new edition of the Qurʾān in Leipzig, which remained the authoritative version for almost a century.
For more information
The research leading to these results has been funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreement no. 810141, project EuQu: “The European Qurʾān. Islamic Scripture in European Culture and Religion 1115-1850”.
The text was entered and edited by Natalya Lugovskaya. Alexei Lavrentiev carried out the XML-TEI encoding as well as the spelling regularization using the OxGarage (https://oxgarage.tei-c.org) and TXM (http://textometrie.org) tools. The spelling regularisation is limited to replacing the letters 'ѣ' with 'е', 'ѳ' with 'ф', 'ї' and 'ѵ' with 'и' and deleting the final 'ъ'. For more details on the linguistic treatment, see Alexei Lavrentiev and Liubov Kurysheva, « Language processing in Digital Editions of Russian 18th Century Texts », in Proceedings of Corpora 2021 International Conference, Saint Petersburg, 2021.
For initial bibliographical guidelines, please see:
Griffin (Clare), “Alkoran o Magomete”, in Christian-Muslim Relations 1500 - 1900, general editor D. Thomas, consulted online on 6 November 2020 [http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2451-9537_cmrii_COM_29162].
Gusterin (Pavel), “Pervyi perevodchik i pervoe izdanie Korana na russkom iazyke”, Islamovedenie, 2011, 1, p. 85-92.
Kruming (Andrei A.), “Pervye russkie perevody Korana, vypolnennye pri Petre Velikom”, Arkhiv russkoi istorii , 1994, 5, p. 227-239.
Zaitsev (Il’ia V.), “Iz istorii perevoda Korana na russkii iazyk v XVI–XVII vv.: pervyi perevod sury ‘Ochishchenie very’ (1572)”, Islam v sovremennom mire, 2016, 12 (2), p. 81-92 [online: https://doi.org/10.22311/2074-1529-2016-12-2-81-92].
Zapol’skaia (Natal’ia N.), “Kul’turno-iazykovoi status lichnosti i teksta v Petrovskuiu epokhu”, in Slavianskaia iazykovaia i etnoiazykovaia sistemy v kontakte s neslavianskim okruzheniem, ed. T. M. Nikolaeva, Moscow, Iazyki slavianskoi kul’tury, 2002, p. 422-447.