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Errors in English Translations of the Quran

Errors in English Translations of the Quran

(From the Introduction of Quran: a Reformist Translation, Brainbow Press)

On the following pages, you will find several comparisons between our translation and that of traditional orthodox English renditions of the Quran. By the word “tradition,” we refer to the works that heavily rely on hearsay reports such as hadith, sunna, and sectarian jurisprudence.

We chose to compare our work primarily with the translation of Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, and Shakir, since they reflect most of the common errors and ­distortions, and because they are popular translations among the English-speaking Sunni population.

We use standard reference numbers in referring to specific passages of the Quran: the number preceding the colon is always the chapter number, and the subsequent numbers are always verse numbers.

Should Men Beat Their Wives?

A famous (and controversial) passage in the Quran has brought about a great deal of misunderstanding about Islam. When in 1989, I started translating the Quran to Turkish, verse 4:34 was among a few verses that I noted down on an orange paper for further research. I had problem with my understanding of it and I let its solution to God, in accordance to the instruction of verse 20:114. I shared the story of my discovery of its original meaning with my Turkish readers in “Errors in Turkish Translations of the Quran” (1992). Below are three translations of that verse, reflecting a deformed mindset followed by our translation:

! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering is: you may beat them.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all). (4:34) Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for their support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great. (4:34) Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. (4:34) The men are to support the women by what God has gifted them over one another and for what they spend of their money. The reformed women are devotees and protectors of privacy what God has protected. As for those women from whom you fear disloyalty, then you shall advise them, abandon them in the bedchamber, and separate from them; if they obey you, then do not seek a way over them; God is High, Great. (4:34)

DISCUSSION OF 4:34

“Verse 4:34 of the Quran orders Muslims to beat their wives; therefore, Islam is a male-dominant religion.” Many of us have heard this criticism from Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and others. Though wife-beating is not a Muslim specialty, and domestic violence is an endemic problem in the West as well as the East, the issue nevertheless is whether it is justified by God. Most people reading conventional translations of 4:34 feel that something is deeply wrong. How could God, the Most Wise order us to beat our women? What kind of solution is that? It appears to be in contrast to the verses in which God describes marriage:

“Among His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, in order to have tranquility and contentment with each other. He places in your heart love and care towards your spouses. In this, there are signs for people who think.” (30:21)

Obviously, these mixed messages have bothered many contemporary translators of the Quran. To avoid the moral and intellectual problems, they try to soften the word “beat” when they translate the verse 4:34. For instance, Yusuf Ali uses a merciful parenthesis after “beat,” adding the word “(lightly).” This insertion does not appear in the Arabic text; it serves as a kind of apology for his translation of the surrounding material.

Later, Rashad Khalifa, a leading figure in the modern Islamic reform movement, rather than questioning the orthodox translation of the word, demonstrates his discomfort with his own version of orthodox translation by an implausible argument in the footnote and a contradictory subtitle before the verse: “Do not beat your wife.” (However, Rashad Khalifa does not duplicate the orthodox distortion of other key words in the verse).

Many orthodox translators have tried to beat around the bush when it comes to explaining this passage, and perhaps just as many have beaten a hasty retreat from those inquiring after the author’s intention — but all have found themselves, in the end, beaten by 4:34.

Now please reread the sentence above. You will see that the word “beat” has been used three times, conveying totally different meanings each time: a verbal phrase meaning “avoid approaching directly” (“beat around the bush”); a verbal phrase meaning “depart quickly” (“beat a hasty retreat”) and the status of having been defeated (“beaten”). Interestingly, the Arabic verb traditionally translated by male translators as “beat” or “scourge” — iDRiBuhunne – also has numerous different meanings in Arabic, which is reflected by the Quran.

When I finished the Turkish translation (1991), this verse was on the top of my list to study carefully. Whenever I encounter a problem regarding the understanding of a Quranic verse, I remember 20:114 and pray accordingly: “Most Exalted is God, the only true King. Do not rush into (understanding) the Quran before it is revealed to you, and say, ‘My Lord, increase my knowledge.’”

Almost all of the translations have mistranslated the four key words or terms of this particular verse. These are:

  • Qawwamun;
  • Faddallallahu ba’dahum ala ba’d;
  • Nushuzahunna; and
  • Fadribuhunna

In one of my books published in Turkey in 1992, “Errors in Turkish Translations,” I discussed the real meaning of these words and the motivation and reasons for mistranslating them. Let’s first start from the last one.

A Famous Multiple-Meaning Word

The main problem comes from the word iDRiBuhunna, which has traditionally been translated as “beat them.” The root of this word is DaRaBa. If you look at any Arabic dictionary, you will find a long list of meanings ascribed to this word. In fact, you will find that that list is one of the longest lists in your Arabic dictionary. It can be said that DaRaBa is the number-one multiple-meaning word in Arabic. It has so many different meanings; we can find numerous different meanings ascribed to it in the Quran.

  • To travel, to get out: 3:156; 4:101; 38:44; 73:20; 2:273
  • To strike: 2:60,73; 7:160; 8:12; 20:77; 24:31; 26:63; 37:93; 47:4
  • To beat: 8:50; 47:27
  • To set up: 43:58; 57:13
  • To give (examples): 14:24,45; 16:75,76,112; 18:32,45; 24:35; 30:28,58; 36:78; 39:27,29; 43:17; 59:21; 66:10,11
  • To take away, to ignore: 43:5
  • To condemn: 2:61
  • To seal, to draw over: 18:11
  • To cover: 24:31
  • To explain: 13:17

As you see, in the Quran alone we can attest to the verb DaRaBa having at least ten different meanings. DaRaBa also has other meanings that are not mentioned in the Quran. For example, in modern Arabic, you do not print money–you DaRaBa money. You do not multiply numbers–you DaRaBa numbers. You do not cease doing work–you DaRaBa doing work. In Turkish, we have many verbs similar to the Arabic DaRaBa, such as Çalmak, which means to play, steal, or strike. In English, we have two verbs that are almost equivalent to DaRaBa. These are “strike” and “beat.” Consider, for the sake of comparison, that Webster’s Dictionary gives fourteen different meanings for the verb “to strike,” and eight for the verb “to beat”! (One strikes a match, strikes a deal, strikes an opponent, strikes gold, goes “on strike” against an unfair employer; one beats another team, beats out a rhythm, beats a retreat, and so on.).

Finding the Appropriate Meaning

Whenever we encounter a multiple-meaning word in the Quran we must select the proper meaning (or meanings) given the context, the Arabic forms, the usage of the same word elsewhere in the Quran, and a certain amount of common sense. For instance, if one were to translate DaRaBa in 13:17 as “beat” (as one could conceivably do), the meaning would be ridiculous:

.” . . God thus beats truth and falsehood…” (13:17)

A more sensitive rendering of the context, however, yields a better translation:

“… God thus explains truth and falsehood…” (13:17)

Another example of mistranslation of DaRaBa can be found in the translation of 38:44. Almost all the translations inject a rather silly story to justify their rendering of the passage. Here is how Yusuf Ali translates the first portion of this verse, which is about Job:

“And take in the hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (the oath).” (38:44)

Yusuf Ali, in the footnote, narrates the traditional story: “He (Job) must have said in his haste to the woman that he would beat her: he is asked now to correct her with only a wisp of grass, to show that he was gentle and humble as well as patient and constant”.

However, without assuming the existence of this strange, male-viewpoint story (which has no other reference in the Quran), we can translate the verse as:

Yusuf Ali Reformist
And take in thy hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (thy oath)… (38:44) Take in your hand a bundle and travel with it, and do not break your oath… (38:44)

Another Take on 4:34

In keeping with the translation we have used in 38:44, we translate the controversial “beating” portion of 4:34 as “leave her” (Literally, the phrase might also be rendered “strike them out,” meaning, in essence, “Separate yourselves from such wives.”).

Additionally, the word nushuz, which is generally translated as “opposition” or “rebellion” in 4:34, has another meaning. If we study 4:34 carefully we will find a clue that leads us to translate that word as embracing a range of related ideas, from “flirting” to “engaging in an extramarital affair” – indeed, any word or words that reflects the range of disloyalty in marriage. The clue is the phrase before nushuz, which reads: “… they honor them according to God’s commandments, even when alone in their privacy.” This phrase emphasizes the importance of loyalty in marriage life, and helps us to make better sense of what follows.

Interestingly, the same word, nushuz, is used later in the same chapter, in 4:128 – but it is used to describe the misbehavior of husbands, not wives, as it was in 4:34. In our view, the traditional translation of nushuz, that is, “opposition” will not fit in both contexts. However, the understanding of nushuz as marital disloyalty, in a variety of forms, is clearly appropriate for both 4:34 and 4:128.

The fourth key word is QaNiTat, which means “devoted to God,” and in some verses is used to describe both man and woman (2:116,238; 3:17,43; 16:120; 30:26; 33:31,35; 39:9; 66:5,12). Though this word is mostly translated correctly as “obedient,” when read in the context of the above-mentioned distortion it conveys a false message implying women must be “obedient” to their husbands as their inferiors. The word is mentioned as a general description of Muslim women (66:12), and more interestingly as a description of Mary who, according to the Quran, did not even have a husband! (66:12).

A Coherent Understanding

When we read 4:34, we should not understand iDRiBuhunna as “beat those women.” We should, instead, remember that this word has multiple meanings. God gives us three ways of dealing with marital disloyalty on the part of a wife. In the beginning stage of such misbehavior, the husband should begin to address the problem by giving advice. If this does not work, he should stop sleeping in the same bed and see if this produces a change in behavior. And if there is still no improvement in the situation, the husband has the right to compel a separation.

The Quran gives analogous rights to women who must deal with disloyal husbands (4:128); this is in accordance with the principle that women have “similar” rights to men in such situations, as stated clearly in 2:228. These would hardly be “similar” rights if women had to suffer physical beatings for marital disloyalty, and men did not!

Beating women who are cheating and betraying the marriage contract is not an ultimate solution, and it is not consistent with the promise of equitability and comparable rights that appears in 2:228. (This is an important consideration, because the Quran proclaims, and Muslims believe, that it is utterly free from inconsistencies.) But “striking out” the disloyal wives – that is, separating from them — is consistent, and it is the best solution. It is also fair.

Should Thieves’ Hands Be Cut Off?

If non-Muslims “know” anything about Islam, it is that they “know” that the Quran mandates a severe punishment for thieves: the cutting off of their hands. Here are three traditional translations of the famous passage on the left and our translation on the right:

! Disputed passage: Traditional translations render the punishment for thieves as “cut off,” while the verb has other meanings too.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
As to the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands: a punishment by way of example, from Allah, for their crime: and Allah is Exalted in power. (5:38) As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise. (5:38) And (as for) the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands as a punishment for what they have earned, an exemplary punishment from Allah; and Allah is Mighty, Wise. (5:38) The male thief, and the female thief, you shall mark, cut, or cut-off their hands/means as a punishment for their crime, and to serve as a deterrent from God. God is Noble, Wise. (5:38)

DISCUSSION OF 5:38

The Quran often uses words with more than one applicable and relevant meaning. This leads to verses that mean two, three, or more things at the same time, verses that make the translator’s job exquisitely difficult.

We come now to such a verse. The verb form we translated as “mark, cut, or cut off” comes from a root verb — QaTa’A – that occurs in the Quran many times. In almost all of its occurrences in the Quran, this verb means “to sever a relationship” or “to end an act.” Only in two instances (12:31 and 12:50) is this verb clearly used to describe a physical cutting; in another instance (69:46), the verb might possibly be interpreted in that way. A related form of this same verb — one that implies repetition or severity of action — occurs in the Quran seventeen times. This particular form is used to mean physically cutting off; or as a metaphor for the severing of a relationship; or to describe physically cutting or marking, but not cutting off.

Thus, the verse recommending punishment for theft or burglary, in the context of the Quran and its terminology (and not the terminology or interpretation attributed to Muhammad or his followers) provides us with a single verb … but one that God has permitted to incorporate a range of possible penalties. For instance:

  • Cutting or marking the person’s hands as a means of public humiliation and identification;
  • Physically cutting off the person’s hands; or
  • Cutting off the person’s means and resources to steal and burglarize (presumably through rehabilitation or imprisonment).

The act of imposing any of these penalties, or any of their combinations, would of course depend on the facts of each case, the culpability and mental capacity of the accused, and the ability of the society as a whole to act in accordance with God’s other instructions in the Quran. Note, for instance, that a Muslim society cannot punish a hungry person for stealing food, since letting a member of the society go hungry is a much bigger crime than the act of stealing food. Such a society actually demonstrates the characteristics of a society of unappreciative people! (See 107:1-7; 89:17-20; and 90:6-20). Considering theft solely as an individual crime, and advocating the severest possible interpretation of the Quran in rendering punishment, is neither fair nor consistent with the scripture.

Should Muslims Levy an Extra Tax on Non-Muslims?

Verse 9:29 is mistranslated by almost every translator. Shakir translates the Arabic word jizya as “tax,” Pickthall as “tribute.” Yusuf Ali, somehow does not translate the word at all. He leaves the meaning of the word at the mercy of distortions:

! Disputed passage: The meaning of the Arabic word jizya (reparation/compensation) has been distorted to mean extra tax for non-Muslims.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29) Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low. (9:29) Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latte day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection. (9:29) Fight those who do not acknowledge God nor the Last day from among the people who received the book; they do not forbid what God and His messenger have forbidden, and they do not uphold the system of truth; until they pay the reparation, in humility. (9:29)

DISCUSSION OF 9:29

We should be reminded that the context of the verse is about the War of Hunain, and fighting is allowed only for self-defense. See: 2:190-193, 256; 4:91; and 60:8-9.

Furthermore, note that we suggest REPARATION instead of Arabic word jizya. The meaning of jizya has been distorted as a tax on non-Muslims, which was invented long after Muhammad to further the imperialistic agenda of Kings. The origin of the word that we translated as Compensation is JaZaYa, which simply means compensation or, in the context of war, means war reparations, not tax. Since the enemies of Muslims attacked and aggressed, after the war they are required to compensate for the damage they inflicted on the peaceful community. Various derivatives of this word are used in the Quran frequently, and they are translated as compensation for a particular deed.

Unfortunately, the distortion in the meaning of the verse above and the practice of collecting a special tax from Christians and Jews, contradict the basic principle of the Quran that there should not be compulsion in religion and there should be freedom of belief and expression (2:256; 4:90; 4:137; 10:99; 18:29; 88:21, 22). Since taxation based on religion creates financial duress on people to convert to the privileged religion, it violates this important Quranic principle. Dividing a population that united under a social contract (constitution) into privileged groups based on their religion contradicts many principles of the Quran, including justice, peace, and brotherhood/sisterhood of all humanity.

Some uninformed critics or bigoted enemies of the Quran list verses of the Quran dealing with wars and declare Islam to be a religion of violence. Their favorite verses are: 2:191; 3:28; 3:85; 5:10,34; 9:5; 9:28-29; 9:123; 14:17; 22:9; 25: 52; 47:4 and 66:9. In this article, I refuted their argument against 9:29, and I will discuss each of the verses later.

Some followers of Sunni or Shiite religions abuse 9:5 or 9:29 by taking them out of their immediate and Quranic context. Sunnis and Shiites follow many stories and instructions falsely attributed to Muhammad that justify terror and aggression, which is currently used as a pretext and propaganda tool by imperialist or neocolonialist powers to justify their ongoing terror and aggression against countries with predominantly Muslim population, surely with much sophisticated weapons and destructive effect. For instance, in a so-called authentic (or authentically fabricated) hadith, after arresting the murderers of his shepherd, the prophet and his companions cut their arms and legs off, gouged their eyes with hot nails and left them dying from thirst in the desert, a contradiction to the portrayal of Muhammad’s mission in the Quran (21:107; 3:159). In another authentically fabricated hadith, the prophet is claimed to send a gang during night to secretly kill a female poet who criticized him in her poetry, a violation of the teaching of the Quran! (2:256; 4:140; 10:99; 18:29; 88:21-22). Despite these un-Quranic teachings, the aggressive elements among Sunni and Shiite populations have almost always been a minority.

Can One Marry Underage Orphans?

A passage of the Quran has persistently been interpreted as sanctioning marriage to young orphan girls:

! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering suggests that the objects of marital intention are the orphans, not the mothers.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
“They ask thy instruction concerning the women say: Allah doth instruct you about them: And (remember) what hath been rehearsed unto you in the Book, concerning the orphans of women to whom ye give not the portions prescribed, and yet whom ye desire to marry, as also concerning the children who are weak and oppressed: that ye stand firm for justice to orphans. There is not a good deed which ye do, but Allah is well-acquainted therewith.” (4:127) They consult thee concerning women. Say: Allah giveth you decree concerning them, and the Scripture which hath been recited unto you (giveth decree), concerning female orphans and those unto whom ye give not that which is ordained for them though ye desire to marry them, and (concerning) the weak among children, and that ye should deal justly with orphans. Whatever good ye do, lo! Allah is ever Aware of it. (4:127) And they ask you a decision about women. Say: Allah makes known to you His decision concerning them, and that which is recited to you in the Book concerning female orphans whom you do not give what is appointed for them while you desire to marry them, and concerning the weak among children, and that you should deal towards orphans with equity; and whatever good you do, Allah surely knows it. (4:127) They ask you for divine instruction concerning women. Say, “God instructs you regarding them, as has been recited for you in the book about the rights of orphans whose mothers you want to marry without giving them their legal rights. You shall observe the rights of helpless children, and your duty to treat orphans with equity. Whatever good you do, God has full knowledge of it. (4:127)

DISCUSSION OF 4:127

Though the Quran permits polygamy for men (4:3), it severely discourages its actual practice by requiring certain significant preconditions: men may marry more than one wife only if the later ones are widows with children, and they should treat each wife equally and fairly. (See 4:19-20; 127-129.). Unfortunately, verse 4:127 has been traditionally misinterpreted and mistranslated in such a way as to suggest that God permits marriage with juvenile orphans. This is clearly not the case.

The Arabic expression yatama-l nisai-l lati in 4:127 has been routinely mistranslated as “women orphans, whom…” The expression is also sometimes translated as “orphans of women whom…” This later translation, though accurate, makes the crucial reference of the objective pronoun “whom” ambiguous: Does the phrase after “whom” describe orphans or women?

As it happens, the Arabic plural pronoun in this verse is the female form, allaty (not the male form allazyna), and it can only refer to the women just referenced, not to the orphans. This is because the Arabic word yatama (orphans) is male in gender!

All the English translations of the Quran that we have seen have mistranslated this passage. This is remarkable, because correct translation requires only an elementary knowledge of Arabic grammar. This error is thus much more than a simple grammatical slip; it is, we would argue, willful misrepresentation. The traditional interpretation of this passage offers an apparent justification for marriage with children, which flatly contradicts the Quran.

Like so many passages in the Quran, 4:127′s meaning was severely distorted in order to gain the favor of rich, dominant males. Over the centuries, male scholars with active libidos have used fabricated hadith to pervert the meaning of this and other Quranic verses relating to marriage and sexuality. (See the discussion of 66:5, below.)

What are the Characteristics of a Model Muslim Woman?

Verse 66:5 lists some ideal characteristics of an appreciative woman. The last three characteristics, however, have been mistranslated.

! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering emphasizes virginity.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
“It may be, if he divorced you (all), that God will give him in exchange Consorts better than you—who submit (their wills), who believe, who are devout, who turn to God in repentance, who worship (in humility), who travel (for Faith) and fast, previously married or virgin.” (66:5) It may happen that his Lord, if he divorce you, will give him in your stead wives better than you, submissive (to Allah), believing, pious, penitent, devout, inclined to fasting, widows and maids. (66:5) Maybe, his Lord, if he divorces you, will give him in your place wives better than you, submissive, faithful, obedient, penitent, adorers, fasters, widows and virgins. (66:5) “If he divorces you, his Lord will substitute other wives in your place who are better than you; peacefully surrendering (to God), acknowledging, devout, repentant, serving, active in their societies, responsive, and foremost ones.” (66:5)

DISCUSSION OF 66:5

Traditional translations mistranslate the last three adjectives used here to describe Muslim women. They distort their meaning as “fasters, widows and virgins.” When the issue is about women, somehow, the meaning of the Quranic words passes trough rapid mutations. For instance, we know that the Sunni and Shiite scholars who could not beat cows and examples found it convenient and fair to beat women (see 4:34). Those of us who have rejected other religious sources besides the Quran are still struggling to clean our minds from these innovations that even have sneaked into the Arabic language long after the revelation of the Quran. There is, in fact, nothing whatsoever about fasting, widows and virgins in this verse. We are rediscovering and relearning the Quran.

The third word from the end of the verse, SaYiHat, which we have translated as ”active in their societies” simply means to travel or move around for a cause. About two century after the revelation of the Quran, when the rights of women were one by one were taken through all-male enterprises called hadith, ijtihad and tafseer, Muslim communities found themselves thinking and living like the enemies of Islam in the Days of Ignorance. The misogynistic mind of orthodox commentators and translators simply could not fathom the notion of a Muslim woman traveling around alone to do anything – and so they pretended that the word in question was not SaYaHa, but SsaWM – fasting! Socially active women were indeed more difficult to control than the women who would fast in their homes; they were even less costly, since they would eat less. For the usage of the verb form of the root, see 9:2. The word SaYaHa has nothing to do with fasting; the Quran consistently uses the word SaWaMa for fasting (2:183-196; 4:92; 5:89,90; 19:26; 33:35; 58:4).

The second word from the end is THaYiBat, which means “those who return” or “those who are responsive”. Various derivatives of the same root are used to mean “reward” or “refuge” or “cloths”. For instance, see 2:125; 3:195. The Arabic words for widow are ARMiLa or AYaMa. The Quran uses AYaMa for widow or single; see: 24:32.

The last word of this verse, aBKaR, which means those who are “young,” “early risers” or “foremost,” has traditionally, and implausibly, been interpreted as “virgins” in this passage. The resulting distorted meaning of the verse supports a sectarian teaching that justifies a man marrying more than one virgin. The Arabic word for virgin is BaTuL or ADRa.

Here, I will focus only on the last word.

This false interpretation has become so popular that it is apparently now considered beyond any challenge. We have not seen any published translation (except Edip Yuksel’s Turkish translation, Mesaj) that does not duplicate this centuries-old error. It is particularly important, therefore, that we explain exactly why we have translated this verse as we have.

The Arabic root of the word we have translated as “foremost” is BKR, and it occurs 10 times in the Quran. In seven of these occurrences, the word describes time; in two (including the present verse) it describes women; and in one case it describes a heifer.

Before deciding that aBKaR means “virgin,” the translator should look closely at how the Quran itself employs the root word. Here are the references in Quranic sequence:

  • 2:68   —>        Young (heifer)
  • 3:41   —>        Early morning
  • 19:11 —>        Early morning
  • 19:62 —>        Early morning
  • 25:5   —>        Early morning
  • 33:42 —>        Early morning
  • 48:9   —>        Early morning
  • 54:38 —>        Early morning
  • 56:36 —>        ??? Woman
  • 66:5   —>        ??? Woman
  • 76:25 —>        Early morning

When this word is used in reference to women (in 56:36 and 66:5), orthodox scholars, without hesitation, leap to translate it as “virgin.” We reject this interpretation, and choose instead to translate the word as “foremost.”

Reportedly, one of the earliest converts to Islam, and the first elected Islamic leader after the death of Muhammad, was his father-in-law, a man who became known to Muslims as Abu Bakr. Abu means “father.” This nickname was not given to Muhammad’s father-in-law because he was the “Father of a Virgin”! Being the father of a virgin was not something unique, since every father of a daughter would deserve such a title at one time in their lives. Besides, Abu Bakr’s daughter did not remain virgin; she married Muhammad and was called by many as the “mother of Muslims.” Some sources relate the name to “young camels.” However, the best explanation must be related to his standing among Muslims. Abu Bakr was one of the foremost ones, one of the progressive ones, one of the early risers, one of the first converts to Islam. He was foremost – or, if you prefer, progressive.

We must note, too, the Arabic conjunction Wa (and), which appears before the word aBKaR (foremost ones). The end of the verse has traditionally been mistranslated, as though the word were actually OR:

“… previously married OR virgins”.

The traditional commentators and translators knew full well that a contradiction might present itself had they translated Wa accurately:

“… previously married AND virgins”.

We have chosen to render this passage as “responsive and foremost,” thereby retaining a legitimate alternate translation of the word traditionally translated “previously married” – as well as the impossible-to-evade “and” of the Arabic text.

There is, however, a portrait of the ideal Muslima (female Muslim): submitting, acknowledging, devoted, repentant, worshipful, active in her society, responsive and foremost.

Was Muhammad Illiterate?

During the month of Ramadan, every evening, after the lengthy congregational prayers millions crowding the mosques ask God to bless the soul of his Nabbiyy-il Ummy, meaning, in the orthodox interpretation, “illiterate prophet.” “Illiterate” (or “unlettered”) is one of the most common titles used by Muslim clerics and imams to praise Muhammad, the deliverer of the Quran.

The Arabic word ummy, however, describes people who are not Jewish or Christian. The meaning of this word, which occurs six times in the Quran, has nevertheless been rendered as “one who can neither read nor write.” This deliberate manipulation by Muslim scholars has become widely accepted as the true meaning of the word. For example, Yusuf Ali and Pickthall follow this pattern, while Shakir prefers not to translate the Arabic word.

! Disputed passage: Orthodox sources distort the meaning of ummy to turn Muhammad illiterate.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
Say: “O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided.” (7:158) Say (O Muhammad): O mankind! Lo! I am the messenger of Allah to you all – (the messenger of) Him unto Whom belongeth the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. There is no Allah save Him. He quickeneth and He giveth death. So believe in Allah and His messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, who believeth in Allah and in His Words, and follow him that haply ye may be led aright. (7:158) Say: O people! surely I am the Messenger of Allah to you all, of Him Whose is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth there is no god but He; He brings to life and causes to die therefore believe in Allah and His messenger, the Ummi Prophet who believes in Allah and His words, and follow him so that you may walk in the right way. (7:158)
Say: “O people, I am God’s messenger to you all. The One who has the sovereignty of heavens and earth, there is no god but He; He gives life and causes death.” So acknowledge God and His gentile prophet, who acknowledges God and His words; and follow him that you may be guided. (7:158)

DISCUSSION OF 7:158

The Quran itself provides guidance for the true meaning of ummy. If we reflect on the verse 3:20 below, we will easily understand that ummy does not mean an illiterate person:

“And say to those who received the scripture, as well as those who did not receive any scripture (ummyyeen)…” (3:20)

In this verse, the word ummy describes Meccan polytheists. It is obvious that ummy does not mean illiterate because it has been used as the counterpart of the people of the scripture. If the verse was ” … And say to those who are literate and illiterate,” then the orthodox translation of ummy would be correct. According to 3:20, the people of the Arabian peninsula consisted of two main groups:

  • The people of the scripture, i.e., Jews and Christians.
  • Gentiles, who were neither Jewish nor Christian.

If the people who were neither Jews nor Christians were called “ummyyeen” (3:20; 3:75), then the meaning of ummy is very clear. As a matter of fact, the verse 3:75 clarifies its meaning as Gentile.

Mecca was the cultural center of the Arabs in the 7th century. Poetry competitions were being held there. It is a historical fact that Meccans were not familiar with the Bible, thus making them Gentiles. So the verse 62:2 describes Meccan people by the word ummyyeen:

“He is the One who sent to the Gentiles (ummyyeen) a messenger from among them, to recite to them His revelations, purify them, and teach them the scripture and wisdom. Before this, they had gone far astray.” (62:2)

The unappreciative opponents claimed that Muhammad was quoting verses from the Old and New Testaments (25:5; 68:15). The verse below refutes their accusation and gives the answer:

“You did not read any previous scriptures, nor did you write them with your hand. In that case, the objectors would have had reason to harbor doubts.” (29:48)

This verse tells us that Muhammad did not read nor write previous scriptures. The word min qablihi (previous ) suggests that Muhammad did read and write the final scripture.

Muhammad was a literate Gentile (ummy)

After this examination of the true meaning of the word ummy, here are the reasons and proofs for the fact that Muhammad was a literate Gentile:

To magnify the miraculous aspect of the Quran, religious people thought that the story of illiteracy would be alluring.

The producer(s) of the illiteracy story found it relatively easy to change the meaning of ummy. Nevertheless, the word appears throughout the Quran, and consistently means “Gentile” (2:78; 3:20; 3:75; 62:2). In verses 3:20 and 3:75, the Quran uses the word ummy as the counterpart to the ehlil kitab (“People of the Book,” a phrase that in both of these verses equates to “Jews and Christians”).

The Quran describes Meccan people with the word ummyyeen (Gentiles) (62:2). According to the orthodox claim, all Meccan people must have been illiterate. Why then were the poems of pre-Islamic Meccan poets hung on the walls of the Ka’ba (the ancient monotheistic shrine of Abraham)?

The Arabs of the 7th century used letters as numbers. This alphabetical numbering system is called “Abjad.” The merchants of those days had to know the letters of the alphabet to record their accounts! If Muhammad was a successful international merchant, as is universally accepted, then he most probably knew this numbering system. The Arabs stopped using the “Abjad” system in the 9th century when they took “Arabic numbers” from India.

The different spelling of the word bism in the beginning of the Basmalah and in the first verse of chapter 96 is one of the many evidences supporting the literacy of Muhammad. It is not reasonable for an illiterate to dictate two different spellings of the same word which is pronounced the same.

The very first revelation from the Controller Gabriel was, Muslims believe, “Read!” And the first five verses of that revelation encourage reading and writing (96:1-5). The second revelation was “The pen and writing” (68:1). These facts compel some questions that orthodox scholarship would rather avoid. Does God command an illiterate man to “read”? If so, could Muhammad read after Gabriel’s instruction to do so? The story told in hadith books about the first revelation asserting that Muhammad could read only after three trials ending by an angelic “squeeze” contradicts the other stories claiming that Muhammad died as an illiterate!

Traditional history books accept that Muhammad dictated the Quran and controlled its recording. Even if we accept that Muhammad did not know how to read or write before revelation of the Quran, we cannot claim that he preserved this illiteracy during the 23 years while he was dictating the Quran! Let us accept, for the sake of argument, that Muhammad was illiterate before the revelation of the Quran. Why then did he insist on staying illiterate for 23 years after the first revelation: “Read!”? Did he not obey his Lord’s command? Did he receive another command forbidding him from reading and writing?

Was it so difficult for Muhammad to learn to read and write? If a person still does not learn to read and write after 23 years of careful dictation of a book, what kind of intellect is that?

If Muhammad was encouraging his followers to read and write (which he did when he recited 2:44 to them), then why should he have excluded himself?

Muslim scholars, who are in disagreement on a bewildering array of subjects, somehow have managed to agree on the story of Muhammad’s illiteracy. Perhaps the glorification of illiteracy, using it as a positive attribute of a worshipped figure, is one of the causes of the high current level of illiteracy in Muslim communities.

PS: There is another meaning of ummy, which does not exclude Gentile, is “the one who is the resident of the capital city.” Mecca was the capital city of medieval Arabia and it is referred in the Quran as “Umm ul-Qura” that is “the mother of cities” (42:7).

Do We Need Muhammad to Understand the Quran?

The so-called “Orthodox Islam,” by answering the above question affirmatively, has sanctified a collection of medieval hearsay reports and traditions attributed to Muhammad. Unfortunately, this was accomplished through the distortion of the meaning of several Quranic verses regarding the role of the prophet. The following verse is one of several crucial verses that have been used to promote hadith and sunna as the second source of Islam.

! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering implies the need for hearsay.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
(We sent them) with Clear Signs and Books of dark prophecies; and We have sent down unto thee (also) the Message; that thou mayest explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought. (16:44) With clear proofs and writings; and We have revealed unto thee the Remembrance that thou mayst explain to mankind that which hath been revealed for them, and that haply they may reflect. (16:44) With clear arguments and scriptures; and We have revealed to you the Reminder that you may make clear to men what has been revealed to them, and that haply they may reflect. (16:44) With proof and the scriptures. We sent down to you the Reminder to proclaim to the people what was sent to them, and perhaps they would think. (16:44)

DISCUSSION OF 16:44

Traditionalists have opted for what we consider an inaccurate rendering of the Arabic root word “BYN.”

The word ‘lituBaYyeNa is a derivative of “BYN,” which is a multiple-meaning word. It means:

  • To reveal what is concealed; or
  • To explain what is vague.

Thus the first meaning is the antonym of “hide,” and the second is the antonym of “make vague.” We have translated this passage in accordance with the first meaning, and understand the passage as relating to God’s order to Muhammad to proclaim the revelation which is revealed to him personally. We believe that the Quran is clear, as its text itself insists.

Indeed, “proclaiming” is the whole mission of the messengers of God, as the Quran maintains (16:35). To be sure, prophets sometimes experience difficulty in proclaiming the revelation (33:37, 20:25). But if the Quran is a profound book written in Arabic so that people may understand (12:2), if it is to be explained by God (75:19), and if it is simple to understand (5:15; 26:195; 11:1; 54:17; 55:1-2), then it is hard to see why or how the prophet is to assume the additional mission of explaining the divine message.

We emphasize, once again, that 75:19 holds that God explains the Quran, and makes no mention of Muhammad or any other prophet, or indeed any human explanation whatsoever. Thus, the word lituBaYyeNa of 16:44, which we have translated as “proclaim,” is similar to the one in 3:187. Verse 3:187 tells us that the people who received the revelation should

“… proclaim the scripture to the people, and never hide it.” (3:187)

Do The Verses of The Quran Abrogate Each Other?

There are schools of thought that have committed the travesty of allowing the Quran – regarded as the definitive word of God – to be abrogated (replaced, overridden) by the hadith and the sunna.

Though in his footnote, Yusuf Ali refers to the other meaning of the word AYAH, and the different interpretation of the verse, by translating the word as “revelations,” he affirms the traditional position known as “abrogation” of one revelation by another revelation. A few scholars, as we say, have gone so far as to use hadith to abrogate the Quran; a more common view, however, is that certain verses in the Quran either have been removed or some verses cancel each other’s judgment out. We reject these contentions.

! Disputed passage: The traditional commentaries and translations render 2:106 to justify abrogation in the Quran, thereby justifying the rejection of many Quranic verses.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that God hath power over all things? (2:106) Nothing of our revelation (even a single verse) do we abrogate or cause be forgotten, but we bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is Able to do all things? (2:106) Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? (2:106) We do not duplicate (or abrogate) any sign or cause it to be forgotten, unless we produce a better, or at least an equal one. Do you not know that God is Omnipotent? (2:106)

DISCUSSION OF 2:106

Ayaat, the plural of aya, is used in the Quran to mean both a) signs/miracles and b) verses/revelations of the Quran itself. Since verses of the Quran are considered to be miracles/signs, the plural form occasionally conveys both meanings simultaneously.

A single verse of the Quran is not deemed to be a miracle since some short verses of the Quran (for instance: 55:3; 69:1; 74:4; 75:8; 80:28; 81:26) are not unique and can be found in daily conversations of Arabic-speaking people. In fact, the Quran determines the minimum unit of miraculous nature as a chapter (10:38), and the shortest chapters consist of 3 verses (103; 108; 110). Therefore, only the plural form of aya, that is ayaat, can be used as reference to the verses/revelation of the Quran.

However the singular form, aya, in all its 84 occurrences in the Quran is always used to mean sign or miracle. Therefore, we choose to translate the singular form aya in verse 2:106 as “sign,” rather than as “verse (of the Quran).”

By declaring the word of God to be vague and ambiguous, early scholars opened the gate for unlimited abuse and distortion. Furthermore, by distorting the meaning of 2:106, they claimed that many verses of the Quran had been abrogated (amended) by other verses or hadiths. By this “abrogation theory,” they amended verses which they did not understand, or which did not suit their interests, or which contradicted their hadiths. Repeating the same error committed by the Children of Israel (2:85), Muslims fulfilled the prophetic description of their action in 15:91-93. Some of them abrogated 5 Quranic verses, some 20 verses and some 50. Below, you’ll find an extreme (and bizarre) example of an abrogation based on the supposed “authority” of 2:106 as interpreted in the orthodox manner.

The verse that was abrogated by a goat!

Some fabricated hadiths claim that the prophet Muhammad stoned a particular couple to death for illicit sexual relations. This punishment, we believe, would have been in conflict with 24:2 of the Quran, which sets out a separate penalty for adultery, and makes no mention whatsoever of capital punishment.

Since hadith-manufacturers realized that hadiths were not enough to abrogate the clear verses of the Quran, they went so far as to fabricate a “verse” supporting stoning and attributed it to God. “Al-shaykhu wa al-shaykhatu iza zanaya farjumuhuma nakalan bima kasabu…” They tried to inject the stoning penalty for adulterers into the Quran!

When they failed, they fabricated stories which only the people who are described in 10:100 of the Quran (those who believe without understanding and comprehending) could accept. According to the story, the ‘stoning verse’ was recorded in the Quran during the time of Muhammad; but just after his death, a goat entered the house of the prophet’s wife Aisha and ate the page on which that verse was inscribed. Thus, we are assured, the “stoning verse” had been abrogated physically!

This story can be found in the so-called authentic hadith collections, such as Ibn Maja, Nikah, 36/1944 and Ibn Hanbal, 5/131,132,183; 6/269.

How could a verse of a perfect scripture be abrogated by a goat? As an answer to this question, Ibn Qutayba, a proponent of hadith and sunna, in his classic book entitled “Solving the Contradictions Among Hadiths” puts forward the contention that “the goat is a holy animal.” And he asked a counter question: “Why not trust in God’s power? As He destroyed the people of Aad and Thamud, He is also able to destroy His revelations by using even a goat!”

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