East to West, and Back: a Protestant Translation of the Qur’an to Bulgarian from the 1930s

Thinking Oriental Studies through Qur’anic Translations

One can arguably say that the translations of the Qur’an can be looked upon as a marker on the development of the Islamic studies in a certain country. Given the status of the sacred scripture of Islam, somehow it is hard to expect that anything else would enjoy priority over it in the eyes of the scholarly community. Thus we see the Latin translation of the Qur’an under the hands of Robert Ketenensis in 1143, produced in the Crusades period by request of Peter the Venerable of Cluny under the solemn title of „Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete („The law of Mahomet the false prophet“) for the sake of having a material to refute theologically. Or the one – again from Arabic to Latin – of Ludovico Marracci (d. 1700) from the Sapienza University in Rome, published in Padua in 1698. In the national languages, we see the first French coming out in 1647 under André du Ryer (simply entitled „L’Alcoran de Mahomet“), which in its own terms spilled over in providing source text to be subsequently re-translated in English, as Alexander Ross did in 1649. The English translation directly from the Arabic came much later on, by George Sale – in 1734. The first German one appears to be the one of Salomon Schweigger, published in 1616 in Nürnberg. Now, bear a little, the title was voluptuous: „Alcoranus Mahumeticus, das ist: Der Türcken Alcoran, Religion und Aberglauben“, but was done from the previous Italian or the Latin translations. Similarly, in 1703 we have the one in German by David Nerreter (d. 1726) which was a translation of Marracci’s one; Theodor Arnold in his own terms did the same around 1746, but translating the Qur’an to German from the English translation of Sale. David Friedrich Megerlin (d. 1778) in 1772 translated the Qur’an from the original Arabic under the title of „Die türkische Bibel, oder der Koran neben einem Kupferstich von Mahumed, der falsche Prophet“ (just lovable titles!). Then came the translation in 1773 by the preacher Friedrich Eberhard Boysen, which in its our turn has been reworked by Samuel Friedrich Günther Wahl (d. 1834) and published in 1828. A couple of other translations appeared up to the time when we arrive at the work of Max Henning (d. 1927), who published his own translation of the Muslim Scripture just at the start of the 20th century, in 1901.

As fragmented and tedious, as such a digest can be, one reasonably wonders why we need it here?

The reason is that they appear directly related to something lying on my desk now: possibly the first complete translation of the Qur’an in Bulgarian.

One would expect that the long history of Bulgaria as part of the Ottoman Empire, stretching for 500 years’ period, would somehow necessitate an understanding and learned reflection on the topics of Islam; and would just as necessary lead to the production of a Bulgarian translation of the Qur’an – if not during the time under Ottoman rule, then shortly after the Liberation in the aftermath of the Russian-Turkish war of 1878. And yet, as often happens in history, self-evident conclusions seem just as slippery as they are attractive. As a matter of fact, the first usable translation of the Qur’an from a scholarly perspective appeared in my life time, in 1997, being the work of Tsvetan Theophanov. The one known to me before has been a real monstrosity from quality point of view: translated under the guidance of one of the Grand Muftis of Bulgarian Muslims – Nedim Gendjev – published in 1993. In 2009 another attempt has been made, this time from Turkish to Bulgarian by Ivan Dobrev. Another complete translation has been published by the Ahmadiya movement in 1991. And there is the masterpiece of samizdat literature, an underground, typewriter edition of a translation from Arabic done by a certain Sheikh Mohammed Shemsuddin in 1986-1989 [2nd ed.], that is, shortly before the fall of Communism in 1989, with the intro written down after that, after 1990.

None of all, except the one of Tsvetan Theophanov, has been enjoying the endorsement of the mainstream Sunni community [mostly belonging to the Hanafi madhab, as part of Ottoman historical heritage] of Muslims in Bulgaria. Which practically would mean that for a century after the Liberation of Bulgarian there has been no way to access the Qur’an in Bulgarian, for educational, religious, academic, or any other purpose.

And here comes my copy. One of those things a lover of books such as me collects as a strategic investment in a future reading, rather than immediate consumption. I remember coming upon it in one of those used books sites that always bear almost criminal notion about them. And yеs, just as I do with stuff outside of immediate interest, it solemnly occupied its place on one of my bookshelves. Until the other day, when a friend of mine who’s diligently taking care to document the history of Bulgarian Protestantism in social media raised the question „Why we’d find Protestants to translate the Qur’an in Bulgarian?“ As scandalous as the question it might seem, it went packed with some relevant documentary evidence. It was brought to my attention through a publication in the Muslim World journal, dated 19331. The publication, tellingly enough, bears the title of „The Bulgarian Qur’an“ and has come under the authorship of Natanail Nazifoff, where he provided some illuminate hints on the background of this translation of the Qur’an:

In the year 1871, when the Bible had been translated into the Bulgarian Language by P.R. Slaveikoff, Dr. Elias Riggs, Dr. Albert Lang and H.R. Setschanoff, the wish was born amongst many Christians of the Bulgarian nation to have a Bulgarian translation of the Koran, of this holy book of two hundred million followers of Islam, which binds the seven hundred fifty thousand Mohammedans in Bulgaria so closely together wth the Islamic word. At that time, while living in Philipopple, I was well acquanted with the late Reverend Nikola K. Litza. He took up the thought of a translation, and in the year 1905 printed the first few pages, but unfortunately, for many reasons, it remained at that beginning. With interest and impatience the Bulgarian Moslems awaited a completion of this book, especially as the Turks had ruled Bulgaria for five centuries. But such hope was ruined and the work failed absolutely, when later Mr. Litza died and there was no one who had the courage to complete the enterprise.

Thus many years passed, until in 1922 a missionary, Mr. E. M. Hoppe, came to Bulgaria and did everything possible to again take up the neglected work of God amongst the Mohammedans in Bulgaria and continue it. He was afraid of neither labor nor trouble and worked in every way to lead the Mohammedans to the feet of Jesus Christ. He also began to create for them a national Christian literature. A fundamental book in the Bulgarian language for the use of the Mohammedans as study and to settle differences between Christianity and Islam, between Bible and Koran, was still wanted. Its possession was a logical supposition […] 2.

Turns out that Ernst Max Hoppe, that German missionary in Bulgaria form the 1920s, has been the initiator of a translation of the Qur’an to service Bulgarian Muslims. We find the same Max Hoppe again, mentioned in the „Notes of the Quarter“ within the Muslim Worlds Journal again in 1955:

Behind the Balkan Curtain, Mr. Ernst Max Hoppe of Heidenau bei Dresden, sends us the following account of Bible colportage work among the Muslims of the Balkan countries.

“In the world of Islam, men and women often separated by miles and miles, stand as servants of the living God, spending all of their lives as witnesses to God’s love and sovereignty among our Muslim brethren. For their encouragement and the joy of all who work among Muslims, I want to relate some of my experience from the Balkans, before 1939 and the subsequent results.

“Here long before World War II missionaries had to leave because of the strong influence of Hitler. Through all these years I received letters from converts and by letter I have been able to do some spiritual counselling both for the individuals and for the Church which has grown there. The Muslims of Bulgaria, the Pomaks, are estimated to be 200,000. They live mainly in the Rodope mountains in southern Bulgaria. During the rule of the Turks they were forcibly converted to Islam. They continued as Muslims under the new Turkey. Laboring hard, I called the Bulgarian to work for the evangelization of the Pomaks. With fellow laborers to help, the Qur’an was translated into the Bulgar language (which Pomaks speak) so they could know in their own tongue and compare it with the New Testament. Many of the educated people of Bulgaria, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Public Instruction favored the project as did some of the leaders of the Bulgarian National Church3.

Obvioulsy, that Max Hoppe has been not exhibiting only accidental interest to the issue of the missionary work in the Balkans and their history: we can find at least that he wrote articles on the topics of the Gagauzi (the Turkish-Christian) population in Bulgaria 4 or the Yuruks5; in Bulgarian we are able to identify at least one other publication by him (Kulturni pioneri i islama [Cultural Pioneers and Islam]6.

Then I realized that my edition of the Qur’an under the title of “The Qur’an: i.e. the Guidance and the Criterion” has an introduction by Ernst Max Hoppe, and then an opening by Max Henning [remember that German translation of the Qur’an from 1901?], is the same, mentioned by Nazifoff. So I’m holding that very translation. Let’s dust it then.

Some tech specs

Now, technically the edition appears pretty standard. It measures 144 x 197 mm, 536 pages paperback, printed [badly] on a brownish paper. My copy looked absolutely unused, some of the pages still had not been correctly trimmed and hence had to be separated by me. The key sections have been decorated by prints of Arabic inscriptions [i.e. a clumsy Thuluth inscription of the „Qur’an: i.e. the Guidance and the Criterion“ (al-Qur’an wa-huwwa l-Huda wa-l-Furqan) on p. 1, a Thuluth script basmala on p. 5 for the opening, a Muhaqqaq basmala on p. 43, a floral Kufi basmala for the introduction, same for the thematic index on p. 523, and the contents on p. 533].

Here comes a difficult part

My copy has no date on it. At the end we have the information that it has been published by „Den“ („Day“) company in the town of Gabrovo, and printed by the „Atanas Stratiev“ publishing house in the town of Haskovo. Yet, the bibliographical data of exactly the same translation [with opening by Ernst Max Hoppe, historical intro by Max Henning, translated by Stefan Tomov and Stefan Skulev] usually appears different, see e.g. the National Library and Information System of Bulgaria entry for it here. It says that the translation has been published in the town of Russe, in 1930, by the  „Nov Jivot“ („New Life“) publishing house. Moreover, in one of the bookinist repositories in Bulgaria we see scanned copy of the first page, explicitly bearing an inscription with the name of the ‘New Life“ publishing house, and the town of Russe, which are not found in my copy, where the same page is designed exactly the same way but is missing the publishing house and place. A possible solution of the dilemma might be that my copy would be a later reprint of the Russe edition, with an unknown date.

And yet. Besides all the entanglements, it turns out that the first complete translation of the Qur’an into the Bulgarian language I have in my hands, was done by Protestant missionaries.

Talking Islam, thinking Christianity

Just look at the opening of Max Hoppe [translation is mine], I have translated the whole of it:

The Qur’an occupies in the Islamic world a highest position in the perception of it as a holy book, as well as an example of a lofty idea and an artistic form. Although it seems that Islam, just as in other place, here has already played it political role, and yet the Qur’an as a religious document as to the understanding of the glorious Bulgarian history, appears of a tantamount importance.

In some national libraries there as – given as presents – some copies of an Arabic manuscript of the Qur’an, but who can read them? It is to this present translation of the Qur’an that the practical contribution towards study of Bulgarian history belongs.

To the Bulgarian educated world, just as to the philologist, and to the historian, as well as to the people’s teacher, the learning one and the agriculturist, the Qur’an could be a welcome enrichment to their home library.

In order to understand one’s own people, we need to read its history. But in order to understand the history of our own people and fatherland, and in order to appreciate it duly, we need to have a measure.

Whosoever reads the Qur’an – he gains a repugnant understanding on the terribly demoralizing  power of Islam, which not only in the course of fifty, but in the course of five hundred years, has striven to eradicate the Bulgarian people – and, in spite of that, could not succeed.

Whosoever reads the Qur’an, starts to understand how widely and deeply the destructive Mohammedanism has spread its paralyzing influence upon the Bulgarian mother tongue and the whole Bulgarian national soul, in order to de-nationalize and Mohammedanize it. And besides that, it becomes clear that the heroes and the liberators of the Bulgarians from such a double natured Mohammedan yoke could be only such persons for whom the bed was the black earth, and the blanket was the starry sky.

But greater than any pen and ink could describe, is the impression that a person gets, when – like me – one has the privilege to visit all countries in South-Eastern Europe; and then compare how much the Bulgarian culture has advanced in comparison with the rest of the countries; and all of this [happened] only after fifty years following the liberation form the chains of an Islamic rule; so that this people, today powerful and mighty, might create new water beds for the flow of its history in the world.

Enlightened is the history of the Bulgarian tribe (679-1396) before  the dark slavery of the Muslim rule. Then we can ask, how great and strong would the Bulgarian people be today among the nations of the earth, had it not passed through this 500 hundred years’ Mohammedan slavery?

But there you are with a practical notion.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria within its present boundaries has more than two hundred thousand of Mohammedan Pomaks – having Bulgarian blood! And – outside of the Bulgarian borders, upon the high Macedonian mountains and in Thracia as well – where I have personally visited them – there are around, say, 200,000 Bulgarian Pomaks. And yet, until today, they are still under the chains and assimilating influence of Islam. There is still work to do here.

Other readers that would take the Qur’an in their hands, would be interested in the question: are there many common points between the Qur’an and the Bible? The answer of a Mohammedan follows to this.

An officer of an Indian army had a talk with a Mohammedan. In the course of the conversation he announced: „Yes, it’s natural, Sir, that your religion and ours are closely related to one another. Your Christ is one of our prophets“. The officer replied: „O, no, although Jesus Jesus is one of your prophets, for us He is much more than a prophet. He is the Son of God and our Redeemer. Similarly, there are hardly any other points of view where Christianity and Islam could be reconciled“.

The Mohammedan then wondered and answered: „Sir, I note that you have read the Qur’an and you have read your Bible as well. I have the habit to say to every Christian I meet the above mentioned remark; even yesterday I did the same to a priest, and they almost in all cases reply to me: „That is very right, Mohammedanism has a lot in common with Christianity!“  See, Sir, and out of that response I note that such a man has never read the Qur’an.

Similarly, my uncle – being an educated, rich Muslim – I saw him often reading the Gospel together with other people, and conversing about it. They were saying that the Qur’an was very good, and gives a lot of regulations, but it could not be compared to the New Testament. Because, one of the learned men used to add, „When you read the Injil (the Gospel), you feel that there is an alive person behind the book, who attracts you to himself“.

Just in order to provide here some opinion on the Bible, we daresay positively that even a literature connoisseur would be pleased looking at the Bible form the aesthetic point of view, and besides the good and the true, seeks to find the beautiful in it as well.

The more geographical, astronomical, geological, natural, cultural, religious and ethnographic knowledge a reader of the Bible has, the more he would discover knowledge in the Bible to enrich him.

Whosoever compares the Bible with the Northern, Indian of Mohammedan religious writings, or with the ancient classical, or modern books, will acknowledge with wonder its incomparable highness.

It is not the place here for a larger discussion between Islam and Christianity. Let him who is interested in the topic read the book „Unknown Cultural Pioneers in the World of Islam. How Mohammedans Have Found Christ, and Him They Confessed“. For them that are interested, we point them also to the Bulgarian brochure „The Qur’an Explored“, by Dr G. H. Rauss [?], as well as other similar type of literature in Bulgarian or in Turkish, which is found on the list of this publishing house.

The present literal translation of the Qur’an from the English language has been made by the translators’ committee: Dr Stefan Tomov and Stefan Y. Skulev. [bold of names as in the original, A.Sh.] The index which facilitates finding names of people and places has been added by Stefan Y. Skulev.

The translation has been relieved of any unnecessary load with regards to notes. The same is valid for the introduction, translated from the German by Simeon Popov, placed before the text itself, which will serve to the pleasure of many and has been downsized to the most necessary.

The vignettes used have been the same as used on the Arab gravestones. They contain a phrase which introduces every Sura [chapter] of the Qur’an, namely (bismi-lahirahmanir-rahim) [transliteration as in the Bulgarian original, A.Sh.], in Bulgarian: „In  the name of the Merciful God“. [pp. 5-9].

As long as the opening states that the translation has been done from the English,  I suggest that it is likely that the version used was the one of George Sale (d. 1736), as the popular standard among the English translation till the 20th century. Due to its double transition [from Arabic to English, then English to Bulgarian], one would not expect a great degree of accuracy. At that time Bulgaria does not have a consistent academic tradition in Arabic studies, let alone in transliterating proper Arabic names or terms into the Cyrillic alphabet of the Bulgarian language, so names sometimes appear influenced by the Turkish-Ottoman rendering [e.g. Abu-Bekir, instead of Arabic Abu Bakr, Abu-Kiazim instead of Arabic Abu Kazim, Abu-Leheb instead of Abu Lahab, Eblis instead of Iblis etc.]. Curiously, names of persons from the Qur’an that find their counterparts within the Biblical narrative, have been „translated“ by their Christian equivalents [i.e. Mary instead of Maryam, Jesus-‘Isa, Moses-Musa, Josef-Yusuf, Eva-Hawa’, Christ-Masih etc.]. „Allah“ everywhere appears as „God“. The translation bears no indication of the verse numbers. The index [pp. 523-532] appears well structured and covers key religious topics, places, persons and terms.

A Curious Teleology

We know the example of the Catholic translations of Scripture and liturgical texts to Arabic for the purposes of Middle Eastern Catholic communities. We know the example of the translations of the Bible into Arabic, such as the one of Cornelius van Dyck in the 19th century, targeting both Christians and Muslims alike, in Lebanon. We know that the first translation of the Qur’an of Robert Ketenensis into Latin was done in order to enable Christian theologians with the means to refute it. 

Yet here the motivation behind the translation appears marked by the spirit of the Enlightenment and Protestant usage of reason. The logic behind it seems to have been taking a walk around: as long as Bulgarian Pomaks seemed not knowledgeable of the very religious text they seemed to profess, a missionary would need to bring it to them, only to build a fundament for comparison with the Bible.  That is the first time I encounter a translation of a religious text foreign to Christianity [the Qur’an] to provide it to its own adherents [the Bulgarian Muslims], in order to have it there for the sake of the comparison to the Gospel; and then showing the supremacy of the latter over the first. The underlying implication seems to be one that relies that as long as we educate Muslims on the basics of their own faith, we’d be able to show the excellence of our own one over theirs.

We may question the effectiveness of such an approach [‘why invest a huge effort into something that we anyway would look to refute?’]. Then, we could also question the legitimacy of this translation among Muslims, as long as the translation of the Muslim Scripture as an act has alwayas bore the notion of being inferior to the Arabic original, all the more that translation by non-Muslims has been considered reproachable. The samizdat underground translation of 1986-1989 makes a reference to the translation of Max Hoppe along the exactly the same lines: „Because many books on Islam have been published in the past about which we say that they were written by Jews and Christians. That is why I want to confirm that this kitab [„book“, parenthesis mine, A. Sh.] has not been written down by such. I confirm it through my picture [of the translator put in the intro of the book, parenthesis mine, A. Sh.]. Because the Kor-ani kerim has been translated before 1944 with rude amendments of its contents. […] Such translations should not be done by incompetent persons.“ 7

And yet we may not doubt the amount, completeness, dedication and sincerity of work done.

See, how lovable a discipline history can be, with all its divine providential caveats and turns, linking a 7th century Muslim Scripture to a great intellectual  tradition of the West, and then bouncing back through it to the backyard of Europe to a country like Bulgaria. Such an interesting Protestant story to touch upon Bulgarian nationalism, and Bulgarian Muslims, isn’t it?


  1. Natanail Nazifoff, The Muslim World, Hartford Seminary, „The Bulgarian Koran“, Volume 23, Issue 2, April 1933, pp. 187-190.
  2. Ibid, p. 187.
  3. “Notes of the Quarter”, The Muslim World, Hartford Seminary, Volume 45, Issue 2, April 1955, p. 204.
  4. Max Hoppe, Ernst. „I Gagauzi, popolazione Turco-Cristiana della Bulgaria“, Oriente Moderno, Istituto per l’Oriente C. A. Nallino, Anno 14, Nr. 3 (Marzo 1934), pp. 132-143.
  5. Max Hoppe, Ernst. „The Yuruks“, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Cambridge University Press, No. 1 (Jan.,1933), pp. 25-28
  6. Max Hoppe, Ernst. Kulturni pioneri i islama [in Bulgarian, Cultural Pioneers and Islam], Sofia, 1930.
  7. Kor-ani k-e-r-i-m (T-h-e V-e-n-e-r-a-b-l-e K-o-r’a-n), transl. in Bulgarian by Shekh Mohammed Shemsuddin, Sofia, p. 4[?].