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!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • 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.