Mistranslations of Islamic Scripture (English)
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Quran 15:9 declares that the Qur'an is Allah's revelation and that he promises to preserve it and protect it from corruption. In Quran 16:103, Quran 44:58 and Quran 54:22, 32, 40, it is emphasized that the Qur'an was revealed in straight forward, easy to understand, and pure Arabic. Islamic scholars agree that all that which is fundamental to Islam (particularly most of Islamic law) which is not contained in the Quran must have been preserved in the form of hadiths. However, translations of these scriptures have not always been rendered faithfully, particularly in recent times and especially when the audience concerned is that of a developed, first-world variety which likely holds to advanced notions of human rights and liberty.
Some of the most prominent and officially recognized English translators of the Qur'an (like Yusuf Ali, Dr. Rashad Khalifa and Muhammad Asad), however, have often mistranslated the most controversial and problematic verses in Qur'an. That these inaccurate translations are most common with verses that would be considered barbaric, unscientific, or crude in the West suggests that these mistranslations were not unintentional or due to some unique difficulty of the Arabic words used in these verses. Similar mistranslations have been observed in translations of the hadiths as well as in translations of other key Islamic texts, such as legal manuals.
Quran 4:34 famously instructs men to beat their wives and forms the basis of the Islamic legal ruling which permits as much. The below translation is taken from Yusuf Ali.
This verse states that men are in charge of women with what they spend on them, and have the right to direct them in life. Also in the same verse, women are told to obey men and if they don’t, then men have the authority to admonish them and if they persist in disobedience (or, read more literally, if the husband simply fears disobedience), then men may proceed to beat them. Yusuf Ali, a prominent translator of the Qur'an, adds the word “lightly” in brackets, after “beating them”, presumably to reduce offense.
(23:14) Fetal development
Quran 23:14 presents a schema regarding the development of the human fetus. The following translations are taken from Pickthall an Yusuf Ali.
Yusuf Ali: Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood; then of that clot We made a (foetus) lump; then we made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then we developed out of it another creature. So blessed be Allah, the best to create!
This verse is often used as an example of how translators (in this case Yusuf Ali, who is authorized by the Saudi Islamic authority and Al-Azhar University) have often attempted to distort verses in order to make them appear less objectionable to Western audiences.
Yusuf Ali, in his translation, replaces the word "then" with "and". He also replaces “the best of creators” (plural) with “the best to create” (singular). The difference in the meaning is crucial because the word “then” suggests another and separate phase, while the word “and” means bones and flesh form simultaneously or during one phase, which conforms to modern science. However this does not appear in the original Arabic text.
Likewise, the plural form of “creators” seems to affirm the existence of multiple creators (of whom Allah would be the best), which appears to contradict the key Islamic doctrine of tawḥīd (توحيد) regarding the oneness of Allah, the only creator. Similar mistranslations are given by the Rashad Khalifa and Muhammad Saad translations. By contrast, the Pickthal translation is more accurate in this case, conforming to the original Arabic text.
Similarly distorted translations are also presented by institutions such as al-Azhar, the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, as is seen on the Al-Azhar web site. The above verse is translated as below:
(18:86) Sun sets in a muddy spring
Quran 18:86 describes the story of Dhul-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) wherein he is said to arrive at a location where he observes the sun setting in a muddy spring.
Modern Islamic scholars have argued that the verse describes a visual representation of what Dhul-Qarnayn saw as the sun set into the “horizon”. Such explanations are frustrated by authoritative sources, themselves represented by the likes of Tafsir Al-Jalalayn (p. 251), and numerous classical authorities (which explain that the setting of the sun is in a well containing a murky mud). The same interpretation is found in al-Tabari’s commentaries (p. 339) as well as in the Concise Interpretation of al-Tabari (p. 19 of part 2) in which he remarks that the well in which the sun sets "contains lime and murky mud". The words “apparent” or “looks like” do not appear in classical explanations or commentaries. Indeed, the verse appears to reflect the cosmological views Muhammad would have been expected to have in seventh century Arabia. Furthermore, since the earth is in fact round, not flat (as the Qur'an appears to suggest), Dhul-Qarnayn could never have reached some "farthest point", since no such point exists on a globe. Other modern Islamic scholars have suggested that it was Dhul-Qarnayn's “opinion” and not the Qur'an's.
The al-Azhar site confront this challenge by distorting the translation of the verse, which states that the "muddy spring" is in fact the Atlantic ocean, which appeared to Dhul-Qarnayn as a muddy spring. A similar tactic is employed by the Sahih International translation.
(86:5-7) Semen production
Quran 86:5-7 states that sperm originates from an area between the breastbone and the backbone.
6. He is created from a drop emitted-
The al-Azhar site translates the origination point of sperm as from "between the pelvis and breast bone".
(9:29) Killing disbelievers
One of the most frequently mistranslated words in the Quran is the Arabic word qatal, which means to "kill" (Arabic verb form I), "massacre", or "slaughter" (form II) or "fight to kill" (form III). Yusuf Ali correctly translates it in An-Nisa’ Quran 4:157 as "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";- but they killed him not", but then distorts the same word as "fight" in At-Tawbah Quran 9:29, "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day.", whereas the Arabic text reads "Fight to kill (form III of qatal) those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day" (emphasis added). Yusuf Ali reproduces this translation in Al-Anfal Quran 8:39 and several other verses.
(67:5) Shooting stars
Quran 67:5 discusses the Jinn (mythical creatures that are described in Islamic scriptures as living among humans) and stars from the "lowest heaven" which are used as missiles against any mischievous jinn that attempts to eavesdrop on conversations between angels.
Transliteration: Walaqad zayyanna alssamaa alddunya bimasabeeha wajaAAalnaha rujooman lilshshayateeni waaAAtadna lahum AAathaba alssaAAeeri
Literal: And certainly We have beautified the heaven (ٱلسَّمَآءَ, as-samaa'a) nearest (ٱلدُّنْيَا, ad-dunyaa) with lamps (بِمَصَٰبِيحَ, bi-masaabeeh) and We have made them (as) missiles (رُجُومًا, rujooman) for the devils, and We have prepared for them punishment(of) the Blaze.
- ٱلسَّمَآءَ (as-samaa'a) means heaven or sky
- ٱلدُّنْيَا (ad-dunya) is translated "the world" or "the lower". The world" is called "the lower", because according to Islamic cosmology the heavens appear one atop the other and the earth is the lowest in this structure.
- So ٱلسَّمَآءَ ٱلدُّنْيَا can be understood as "the lowest heaven", "the heaven right above this flat earth", "the sky above The Lower".
- بِمَصَٰبِيحَ (bi-masaabeeh) - this word means "lamps" and is still used as such in modern Arabic (see Google images for مصابيح)
- رُجُومًا (rujooman) - it is from the same root as رجم (rajm), meaning "stoning", which is the Islamic punishment for sex outside marriage (Satan, or Iblis, is known as al-Rajeem or "the stoned one" - الرجيم in Arabic).
Below are the three most popular and readily available translations of the verse from Islamic sources.
The below translations from non-Islamic sources are also generally accepted, albeit not frequently cited in Islamic circles.
A further twelve translations confirm the above translations.
The following two translations distort the idea of stars being used to stone jinn by describing the missiles as being made out of/from the stars, but not being the stars themselves.
Another two translations include their modifications without using brackets, giving the impression that their understanding of the verse was already, in essence, conveyed by the original Arabic.
In two other translations, the lamps and the projectiles used against the devilish jinn are referred to as separate entities, though this disagrees with the Arabic text in which there is a pronoun used to refer to the "projectiles" whose clear antecedent is the plural word "lamps".
Reinterpretations presented as translations
The following translations depart entirely from the classical interpretations of the verse and, it would appear, the very wording of the verse itself.
Another three translations go a little further, asserting that the "devils/evil ones" refer to evil human cohorts and not to the jinn.
Incorporation of modern science into translation
The following translation attempts to incorporate modern science into its reading of the verse, though makes it a point to use brackets to differentiate this interpretation from the words of the verse.
The sun will rise "in the West"
A sign of the last hour that appears in numerous hadiths is often mistranslated as the sun rising "in the West". This mistranslation occurs throughout the English translation of Sahih Bukhari by Muhsin Khan and sometimes in the translation of Sahih Muslim by Abdul Hamid Sadiqqui.
While the Arabic word al maghrib was commonly used to mean the West in general, in fact a much more specific form occurs in these hadiths. In every hadith narration of this prophecy, the Arabic phrase is always min maghribi-ha (مِنْ مَغْرِبِهَا), which means that the sun is told to go and rise "from its setting place", without the definite article and with the possessive suffix. In one narration in Sahih Muslim (which is accurately translated), there is in addition the phrase min maghribi-ki (مِنْ مَغْرِبِكِ), which means the sun is told to go and rise "from the place of your setting". Earlier in the same narration, the sun is usually commanded to rise min matli'iha (مِنْ مَطْلِعِهَا) which means "from its rising place". This uses the same word as occurs in the Dhu'l Qarnayn story, Quran 18:90, matli'a ash-shamsi, "the rising place of the sun", and was not the word used throughout the Quran and hadiths to mean the East in general, which was al mashriq (ٱلْمَشْرِق).
Aisha's age at consummation
'Aisha lived with her parents before her marriage to Muhammad was consummated at the age of 9 (Sahih Muslim 8:3310). The following mistranslation is often presented as evidence that she reached puberty while she still lived there.
The word أَعْقِلْ means to use thoughts or reasoning, but the translator Muhsin Khan has used the word 'puberty'. The meaning rather is that 'Aisha was never aware of a time when her parents were not Muslim. A literal translation would be "I was not aware of my parents other than that the two of them both acknowledged the religion" (لَمْ أَعْقِلْ أَبَوَىَّ إِلاَّ وَهُمَا يَدِينَانِ الدِّينَ). The same Arabic phrase is translated as follows in another hadith by the same translator:
The 'puberty' mistranslation also fails to achieve chronological sensibility. 'Aisha's father, Abu Bakr, was one of Muhammad's first followers. It would not have taken until puberty for 'Aisha to notice that her father followed the religion.
Hadith in which Aisha mensturated
A mistranslated hadith has a comment from Abu Dawud supposedly about Aisha menstruating when she was nine. This is Sunan Abu Dawud 4915 (Ahmad Hasan numbering; 4933 Dar-us-Salam).
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) married me when I was seven or six. When we came to Medina, some women came. according to Bishr's version: Umm Ruman came to me when I was swinging. They took me, made me prepared and decorated me. I was then brought to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), and he took up cohabitation with me when I was nine. She halted me at the door, and I burst into laughter. Abu Dawud said: That is to say: I menstruated, and I was brought in a house, and there were some women of the Ansari in it. They said: With good luck and blessing. The tradition of one of them has been included in the other.
Ahmad Hasan mistranslates Abu Dawud's comment as "That is to say: I menstruated". Aisha's phrase "I burst into laughter" is fa-qultu heeh heeh (فَقُلْتُ هِيهْ هِيهْ), "And I said heh, heh". The Dar-us-Salam English-Arabic edition of Sunan Abu Dawud translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Hadith 4933) renders Aisha's words here: "She made me stand at the door and I started to breathe deeply".
Abu Dawud's comment is ay tanaffasat (أَىْ تَنَفَّسَتْ), which is "That is to say 'I breathed'". The verb nun-fa-sin is used here in Arabic form V with the ta prefix and shadda (doubled) middle letter, which Lane's Lexicon says means "breathed". Form I can mean menstruated, but that is not the form used in the hadith.
Hit women without leaving a mark
Muhammad's 'Farewell Sermon' appears in various hadith collections and al-Tabari's History. A short version is found in Sunan Ibn Majah. The Arabic words here translated 'and hit them, but without causing injury or leaving a mark' are a mistranslation.
The highlighted phrase is fadribuhunna darban ghayra mubarrih (فَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ضَرْبًا غَيْرَ مُبَرِّحٍ). A literal translation is, 'then beat them, a beating without severity'). The last word is defined in Lane's Lexicon as violence/severity/sharpness/vehemence'.
The same Arabic phrase appears in the other versions of the farewell sermon. The translators of Sunan Abu Dawud and al-Tabari's History both renders it 'beat them, but not severely'.
The versions of the farewell sermon found in Jami` at-Tirmidhi 5:44:3087, translated as 'and beat them with a beating that is not painful', and Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2:10:1163, translated as 'and beat them with a beating that is not harmful, consist of the same Arabic words as quoted above and found in other versions of the farewell sermon.
In his tafsir, al-Tabari quotes Qatada clarifying that the phrase means ghayr sha'in (that is, 'without being disgraceful/outrageous/obscene/indecent'). while he records that Ibn Abbas explained it as 'Hitting with a siwaak and the like'. It appears that over time there were efforts to temper the abusive results of the Quranic verse. For further relevant hadiths and information see Wife Beating in Islamic Law.
- The Deceptive Translations of the Quran - (archived), http://www.faithfreedom.org/the-deceptive-translations-of-the-quran/
- Mawdudi, Sayyid Abul Ala, Tafhim ul Quran, Markazi Maktaba Islami, Delhi, 1995, vol. 6, p.110
- "...The Jinns would go to the lowest heaven and listen to the Angels conversing amongst themselves about events of the Future which they heard from Allah. The Jinns would then inform the fortune-tellers. This is why before the time of the Prophet (saws) many fortune-tellers were very accurate in their predictions. However, upon the Prophet's arrival the heavens were guarded intensely by the Angels, and any Jinn who tried to listen was attacked by meteors (shooting stars)..." - The World of Jinn - Invitation to Islam, Issue 4, January 1998
- Word-by-Word Grammar - Verse (67:5) - The Quranic Arabic Corpus
- Abdel Haleem: We have adorned the lowest heaven with lamps and made them [missiles] for stoning devils for whom We have also prepared the torment of a blazing fire.
Muhammad Ahmed - Samira: We have adorned the lowest sky with lamps, and made them missiles against the devils, for whom We have prepared a torment of most intense fire.
Qaribullah: We have adorned the lower heaven with lamps, and We made them a stoning for the satans, We have prepared the punishment of the Blaze for them.
Faridul Haque: And indeed We have beautified the lower heaven with lamps, and have made them weapons against the devils, and have kept prepared for them the punishment of the blazing fire.
Syed Vickar Ahamed: And indeed, We have decorated the lowest heaven with lamps, and We have made them (like) missiles to drive away the Satans, and have prepared for them the penalty of the blazing Fire.
Muhammad Taqi Usmani: And We have decorated the nearest sky with lamps, and have made them devices to stone the devils, and We have prepared for them the punishment of Hell.
Muhammad Sarwar: We have decked the lowest heavens with torches. With these torches We have stoned the devils and We have prepared for them the torment of hell.
Hamid S. Aziz: And certainly We have adorned this lower heaven with lamps and We have made these missiles for Satan, and We have prepared for them the chastisement of burning.
Muhammad Mahmoud Ghali: And indeed We have already adorned the lowest heaven with lamps and made them outcast (meteorites) for Ash-Shayatin (The ever-vicious "ones", i.e., the devils) and We have readied for them the torment of the Blaze.
Ali Quli Qara'i: We have certainly adorned the lowest heaven with lamps, and made them missiles against the devils, and We have prepared for them punishment of the Blaze.
Abdul Majid Daryabad: And assuredly We have bedecked the nearest heaven with lamps, and We have made them missiles for satans: and for them We have gotten ready the torment of the Blaze.
Sher Ali: And verily, WE have adorned the lowest heaven with lamps, and WE have made them the means of driving away satans, and WE have prepared for them the punishment of the blazing Fire.
- nun-fa-sin - Lane's Lexicon
- Lane's Lexicon Book I page 182
- al-Tabari 4:34