Torsten Tschacher: ‘Extraordinary Translations' and ‘Loathsome Commentaries': Quranic Translation and the Politics of Language in the Tamil World

Thursday, March 8, 2018
4:00 PM - 5:30 PM
11372 Bunche Hall

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Translations of the Quran into Indian languages have commonly been interpreted in the context of nineteenth-century reform movements. From this perspective, translating the Quran was both a cause and a result of Muslim reform, as better knowledge of the Quran encouraged efforts at religious reform, while reform movements strove to make the Quran available to the masses. Concomitant with this line of reasoning has been a particular stress on print culture as an accessory to reform and the spread of Quranic translation, as well as a tendency to perceive Quranic translation as a process that spread from Urdu into other Indian vernaculars. Most of these presuppositions mirror assumptions about the interconnectedness of scriptural translation, religious reform, and vernacular printing in the history of the Reformation in Europe.

The history of Quranic translation into Tamil has consequently been read in similar terms. Mostly, scholarship has focused on the 1920s and 30s as a decisive phase in translating the Quran into Tamil, as religious scholars of various backgrounds vied to produce the ‘first’ Tamil translation of the Muslim scripture. This period appears to confirm the basic assumptions about the role of religious reform, print, and Urdu in Quranic translations in Indian languages. However, focus on this period has largely eclipsed an earlier period of Quranic translations beginning in the 1880s, which was almost exclusively ‘traditionalist’ in character and showed hardly any signs of influence from Urdu, while exhibiting continuities with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century examples of Quranic translation. As I will argue in my presentation, the eclipse of this earlier period of translation was the result of contingent transformations in the politics of the Tamil language, which marked earlier translations as ‘improper’ in the nationalist public culture of the late colonial period.


Torsten Tschacher is Junior-Professor for Muslim Culture and Society in South Asia at the Institute of Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. His research focuses on the history and textual traditions of Tamil-speaking Muslim societies in South India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. He has recently published Race, Religion, and the ‘Indian Muslim’ Predicament in Singapore, (London 2018).

Sponsor(s): Center for Near Eastern Studies