Armien Baker: Pioneer of the Afrikaans Qur’an

A picture of Mr Baker in his lounge in Quarry Road, Simon’s Town.

The Baker family has a strong connection to Simon’s Town, and their legacy spans generations. An important part of this legacy is Mohammed Armien Baker’s translation of the Arabic Qur’an into Afrikaans.

In an interview with the Echo, Zeid Baker, Mr Baker’s son and the principal at South Peninsula High School, spoke about his father’s life and his groundbreaking work on Die Heilige Qur’an.

Zeid, 59, was born in Simon’s Town in 1964 and has fond memories of growing up in Quarry Lane.

“I was fortunate to spend three years of my life in this beautiful town until our family – together with other families – was forcefully removed from our homes,” he said.

Their relocation under apartheid to Wynberg in 1967 marked a new chapter in their lives.

Zeid cherished 18 precious years with his father, who was born in 1910 in Simon’s Town as the eldest child of Fatima and Ghatiep Hadjie Achmat Baker in a family of 12 siblings.

“I’ve relied heavily on his diaries, his meticulous and precise work, his journey of translating the Holy Qur’an into Afrikaans, and stories from those who had experiences with him, along with anecdotes from my siblings.“

His father’s early life was shaped by the naval and fishing town, where he attended a boys’ mission school. Zeid fondly remembers his father as an avid reader and someone who loved grappling with knowledge – a trait recognised by elders even in his youth.

Mr Baker’s journey in education started at Trafalgar High School in District Six. He earned a teacher’s diploma from Zonnebloem Teachers’ Training College in 1929 and began teaching at the Simon’s Town Muslim Mission School when he was just 20.

In 1930, he was appointed principal of the Simon’s Town Moslem Primary School.

With a thirst for knowledge, he continued his studies, obtaining a National Senior Certificate in 1940 and a Higher Education Certificate from the Suid Afrikaanse Akademie in 1950. After serving 36 years as a teacher and principal, he retired at the end of 1965, passing the torch to Adnaan Davis, who succeeded him as principal at the school.

Mr Baker’s significant role in the community extended beyond education.

On November 12, 1952, he became the Imam of the Noorul Islam Mosque in Simon’s Town, succeeding his father, Achmat Baker, who played a pivotal role in establishing the Simon’s Town (Noorul Islam) Mosque and the Simon’s Town Muslim School in 1917.

As a religious leader, his diary entries, according to Zeid, chronicle his involvement in various community matters, from overseeing wedding ceremonies to mediating in divorce proceedings.

Zeid noted that his father faced challenges in this role, often requiring mediation from external sources due to disputes within the community. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his beliefs.

Simultaneously, Mr Baker managed the Simon’s Town Moslem School, overseeing the administration, teacher appointments, quality assurance, and infrastructure improvements.

Zeid emphasised his father’s linguistic talents, stating that he was naturally gifted at reading and writing Arabic, while his native tongues were Afrikaans and English.

Recognising the importance of Afrikaans as the mother tongue and medium of instruction, Mr Baker improved his own qualifications, obtaining an Afrikaans Language Proficiency Certificate at the University of South Africa in 1954. This multilingual ability equipped him to translate the Holy Qur’an.

“As followers of the Muslim faith, we believe that The Holy Qur’an is the eternal word of God,” Zeid said. “My father’s aim was to spread the true word of Islam to as many people as possible.”

In addition to his responsibilities as a spiritual leader and school principal, Mr Baker translated the Qur’an into Afrikaans between 1954 and 1961.

“As an educator, my father’s goal was to share the genuine teachings of Islam with as many people as he could. Despite the demands and difficulties of being a spiritual leader at the mosque and a school principal, my father sought inner peace, directed his energies inward, and made it his mission to translate the Qur’an,” Zeid said.

His father did not record a formal entry in his diary declaring his intention to translate the Qur’an, he pointed out.

However, the diaries record resources he acquired, such as volumes of Arabic grammar and translations of the Qur’an by various scholars from Europe and Pakistan.

The first significant entry related to the translation is dated July 26, 1958, indicating that 15 parts of the Qur’an had been translated. By December of 1959, Mr Baker had completed the foreword and handed over half of Die Heilige Qur’an to Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk, totalling 1611 written pages.

In an article in the Cape Times dated August 18, 1961, Mr Baker stated his three reasons for undertaking this monumental task. He aimed to help Afrikaans-speaking pupils and Muslim devotees understand the Arabic Qur’an, assist educators in providing religious instruction, and introduce Islam to other Afrikaans-speaking people.

In his foreword to the translation, dated December 30, 1960, he humbly acknowledged that the translation could never fully capture the rhythmic beauty of the original Arabic text. Even so, he meticulously collaborated with academics and scholars at Stellenbosch University so that the grammar and idiom would be accurate.

“Before publishing the work, Afrikaans writers at Stellenbosch University, including PJ Muller, ID Du Plessis, Tommy Carse, and others, rigorously reviewed it to guarantee that the grammar and idiom were completely accurate,” said Zeid.

Tayba Baker, Mr Baker’s first wife, died during the translation process. She had helped support him throughout his journey. In the first three editions of the translation, the completion of the work was dedicated to her memory.

Die Heilige Qur’an, was published on August 21 1961, by Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk.

Mr Baker’s translation remains the only full translation of the Qur’an into Afrikaans to have been published and has repeatedly been reprinted.

“The intention to get people of other faiths to have a better understanding of Islam – in my humble opinion – was achieved with the translation,” Zeid said.

The translation received recognition when it won the first prize at a non-fiction book fair at Greenmarket Square in Cape Town in 1962.

After serving his community for 16 years as a religious leader, Mr Baker resigned his position as the imam of Simon’s Town Mosque in 1968.

At the age of 72, he died at his home in Essex Road, Wynberg.

Die Heilige Qur’an was published on August 21 1961, by Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk.
This house on Thomas Street in Simon’s Town was once home to the Baker family and is now marked with a plaque from the Simon’s Town Historical Association. The plaque commemorates Mr Baker, who translated the Qur’an into Afrikaans while residing at 1 Quarry Road.
A closer look at the plaque outside Mr Baker’s home in Thomas Street.
Mr Baker teaching at the Moslem School in Thomas Street, Simon’s Town.
Mr Baker’s translation remains the only full translation of the Quran into Afrikaans to have been published and has repeatedly been reprinted.