The Yiddish Quran

Sect Publishes Holy Book for Very Few Readers

An Unusual Holy Book: The Islamic Ahmadiyya sect translated parts of the Koran into Yiddish.
Haggai Frid/Courtesy HaAretz
An Unusual Holy Book: The Islamic Ahmadiyya sect translated parts of the Koran into Yiddish.

By Philologos

Published September 09, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There was an unusual event in Haifa the other day. Muhammad Sharif Odeh, the leader of the Israeli community of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, announced the 25th anniversary of an Ahmadiyya-sponsored translation into Yiddish of selections from the Quran. Called by Haifa’s Jewish mayor, Yona Yahav, the “Reform Jews of Islam,” the Ahmadiyyas, who claim tens of millions of followers around the world, are among the most moderate of Muslims. Their Yiddish Quran project, the only one of its kind, represents a reaching out to Jews — a touchingly naive one, it must be said, since just about the only native Yiddish speakers left are Haredim, who are about as likely to read the Quran as they are to replace their black hats with Arab keffiyehs. (And who could, in any case, read the Quran in the full Hebrew translations that already exist.)

Yet even if, out of sheer curiosity, an ultra-Orthodox Jew were to read the Quran in the Ahmadiyyas’ Yiddish, he would find it a disconcerting experience. This is not because the Yiddish is unidiomatic; on the contrary, it is clearly that of a native Yiddish speaker who either knew classical Arabic or worked with someone who did. Nor is it because of the Quran itself — a book, I must admit, of which I am not a great admirer. Rather, it is because Yiddish is so closely, so intimately, so inextricably linked to Judaism that there is something singularly odd about encountering it in the service of another, and in some ways anti-Jewish, religion. (The same thing can be said, I’m sure, of Yiddish versions of the New Testament, with which I don’t happen to be familiar.)

It’s enough to read the Quran’s opening verse, the well-known Arabic Bismi Allahi er-raḥmani er-raḥim, “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful,” which is rendered in Yiddish as In nomen fun Allah, dem gnediken, dem barmhartzigen, to feel a bit of a shock. In English, “Allah” simply comes across as the Arabic name of God. In Yiddish, in which God has His own special names, too (ha-shem, der koydesh-borekh-hu, der eybishter, etc.), it sounds blasphemous, as if one were acknowledging the existence of another God in the world besides the Jewish one.

Or take the translation of verse 137 in the Quran’s fourth chapter, the Al-Nisa Surah. The verse begins, “O ye who believe, believe in Allah and His messenger, and in the book which He has revealed to His messenger, and in the book which He revealed before.” These two books are, of course, the Quran and the Torah, both referred to as kitab in Arabic, and the Yiddish translation of the second half of the verse goes, “… un in dem seyfer, vos er hot entplekt tsu zayn sholiakh, un in dem seyfer, vos er hot entplekt friyer.”

Since the Hebrew-derived word seyfer, “book,” is used in Yiddish only for a Jewish religious text, this sounds strange to a Yiddish speaker when applied to the Quran. And on the other hand, although a seyfer-toyreh is a parchment scroll of the Pentateuch, the Torah itself is never referred to in Yiddish as a seyfer, let alone as der seyfer fun Moyshe, “Moses’ seyfer,” as it is elsewhere in our translation. It is simply the toyre, unique and unparalleled, and to speak of it as if it were just one more book among many has a demeaning ring, certainly to ultra-Orthodox ears.

Of course, the Yiddish translator had a dilemma: Had he used the word toyreh, he would have been promoting the Jewish rather than the Muslim sense of things. He had a similar dilemma with Verse 81 of Surah 3: “And when Allah made a covenant [with the Jews] through the prophets [saying]…. Do you affirm and accept My compact in this? They said: We do affirm.” This is translated into Yiddish as “…. Er hot azoy gezogt: zayt ir maskim, nemt ir oyf zikh di akhrayes, velkhe ikh leyg aroyf af aykh in dem inyen? Hobn zey hobn gezogt: Mir zenen maskim” — that is, “He [God] said: Do you agree to accept the responsibility [akhrayes] that I am putting on you in this matter?” [and] they said: “We agree.”

An ultra-Orthodox reader would have no difficulty identifying this as a Muslim retelling of the story in Exodus about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, according to which God asks the Israelites if they will “keep his covenant” (im shmartem et briti, in Hebrew), to which they reply, “Na’aseh ve’nishma,” “We will do [it] and we will obey.” Had the Yiddish translation used the Hebrew of the Bible, which any Haredi reader would have been familiar with, such a reader would have recognized the Quran’s source at once — which is precisely what both the Quran and the Yiddish translation do not want him to do. The Jewish story had to be de-Judaized in order to be Islamized. Much of the Quran works this way.

None of this, needless to say, is a criticism of the Ahmaddiyyas. They were trying not to proselytize, but simply to make the Quran available to a specific audience of Jews. The fact that this audience could not possibly have appreciated it in the form in which it was made available does not detract from their good intentions.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?








You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:













We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.