Translating the Qur’an through Tafsīr al-Jalālayn

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Figure 1. Jalālayn manuscript from Pondok Pesantren Langitan, Tuban, Indonesia. Endangered Archives Programme EAP061-1-105, p.2


Due to the belief that the Qur’an cannot be accurately translated, non-Arab Muslims typically rely on tafsīr (Quranic exegesis) to access its content. In contrast to “translation,” tafsīr is accepted as a legitimate practice in any language. Hence, it is logical that the initial translation work to emerge in the Indo-Malay languages was not a “translation” but rather a Malay tafsīr called Tarjumān al-Mustafīd. This tafsīr, authored by the Acehnese scholar Abd al-Rauf as-Sinkili al-Jawi of the 17th century (1105 H/1693 M), is an example. Therefore, if an accurate translation is deemed unattainable, an alternative in the form of a tafsīr using a local language can be superior to a word-for-word or verse-by-verse translation.

Some scholars argue that after Tarjumān, no translation activity was found until two centuries later, and the need for translation was already fulfilled by Tarjumān. This assumption may not be accurate because (1) several translation manuscripts have been found from those centuries, and (2) the need for a Qur’an translation in the Malay language might not have been as urgent as it is suggested. In fact, from the past until now, Indonesian Muslims who study Islamic sciences have generally used Arabic-language books from an early age.

During my childhood, once I had learned how to read the Qur’an, the next step was to acquire knowledge of the essential sciences of Islam, such as Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Aqidah (theology). It was typically achieved by studying simple Arabic-language books like Safīnatun Najāh, rather than reading books written in local languages such as Javanese or Malay. Consequently, it became the norm to rely on Arabic books for a comprehensive understanding of the Qur’an, making Tafsīr al-Jalālayn more popular than Tarjumān in this regard. For Muslim students, reading Arabic-language books holds more legitimacy than reading books in local languages.

This assumption is supported by the widespread use of Tafsīr al-Jalālayn as the standard reference for comprehending the Qur’an in various Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) across Indonesia. An example that illustrates how Javanese individuals accessed the Qur’an is a Jalālayn manuscript dating back to the 18th-20th century which was digitized by the Endangered Archive Project (EAP) from Pondok Pesantren Langitan in Tuban, East Java. The EAP has collected numerous similar Jalālayn manuscripts from pesantren in Ponorogo and suraus (Islamic assembly places) in West Sumatra.

This EAP061/1/105 is not a complete Jalālayn manuscript. This volume only includes Surah al-Baqarah to al-Ahqaf, consisting of 461 folios. Based on similar manuscripts, it can be assumed that there is a separate second volume from this manuscript, which may contain Surah Muhammad to Surah al-Fatihah. The arrangement, used in most Jalālayn manuscripts in pesantren including EAP061/1/105, differs from the arrangement of surahs in the Qur’an, which usually starts from al-Fatihah and ends with al-Nas. Manuscripts that start from al-Baqarah and end with al-Fatihah reflect the division of manuscripts based on the author’s order.

As known, Jalālayn is a tafsīr book written by two individuals, Jalaluddin al-Mahalli and his student, Jalaluddin al-Suyuthi. When writing this tafsīr, al-Mahalli started from Surah al-Kahf to al-Nas. When he intended to complete it from the beginning of the Qur’an, he passed away after completing just al-Fatihah and 26 verses of Surah al-Baqarah. The tafsīr writing project was then continued by al-Suyuti, who rewrote it from al-Baqarah, omitting the 26 verses of al-Mahalli’s version, until completing Surah al-Isra. Unlike this manuscript, the current printed version of Jalālayn usually starts from al-Fatihah.

As seen in Figures 1-2, the strategy used by Javanese Muslims to “translate” the untranslatable Qur’an is by translating the Jalālayn. The Jalālayn manuscript itself consists of two texts. The red text represents the verses of the Qur’an, while the black text represents the Jalālayn interpretation. Using two different colours for the Qur’an text and the interpretation is not unique to Indonesia. Several manuscripts from the Middle East also use the same approach.

Javanese individuals employ interlinear translation when working with the Jalālayn. The translation is rendered in black ink and appears smaller in this manuscript. While the Qur’an text and the Jalālayn interpretation are written in naskh script, the Javanese interlinear translation is penned in riq’ah script. This specific writing style, known as “makna gantung” or “makna gandhul” (hanging meaning), is commonly observed in Java. The language utilized in this manuscript is Javanese.

This translation of makna gantung, as shown in manuscript EAP061/1/105, was written by a student in a pesantren. They provided translation notes based on what their teacher (kiai) recited. As seen in Figure 2, the hanging translation by these students is done for both the Qur’an text (red) and the Jalālayn text. It can also be observed that the student leaves some words untranslated. The words left without translation are usually words whose meanings were already known.

Manuscripts like Jalālayn, as shown here, are evidence that the scarcity of Qur’an translations until the 20th century is mostly due to Javanese people who chose to become users of the Arabic language in their study of Islam. Because, in any case, the Arabic language is in their eyes more authoritative than other languages. The motivation to master Arabic is higher than the need to read translations.

Figure 2. Jalālayn manuscript from Pondok Pesantren Langitan, Tuban, Indonesia. Endangered Archives Programme EAP061-1-105, p.3.



Jalālayn manuscript from Pondok Pesantren Langitan, Tuban, Indonesia. Endangered Archives Programme EAP061-1-105.

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