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The Popular Translation

November 18, 2012

kr’s note: This post was inspired by several talks I recently heard wherein I found the popular translation to be problematic.  I think that most people hear these translations and don’t make much of it, and consider to be a part of the normative dialogue. And it is true that while words have multiple interpretations and going between two complex languages such as Arabic (far more complex) and modern day English (filled with peculiarities) is a difficult task, it is important to understand how we come to understand seemingly unassuming ideas as well. Finally, this is not referring to academic translations but rather to refer to our everyday conversations, including our weekly Friday sermons.

The abundance of translation resources has opened new doors of accessibility in understanding sacred texts, especially the Qur’an. This is a useful thing, in most cases, given the seeker has an understanding a priori of what he is trying to find, and that accessing a particular resource is more a confirmation of what was already known, rather than an effort to inductively learn. The popular translation that results from this, especially in the discourses of those without knowledge of Arabic, can become problematic under certain conditions. Foremost among these problems is if a translation or understanding  of sacred text violates theology, either implicitly or explicitly, and this spreads among the popular discussions as a result.

This is not a matter of semantics, I believe, for Arabic is the most precise and scientific of languages. In the study of sacred texts, especially the Qur’an, one must understand that each word has a role in the overall understanding, that there is no randomness as to why a certain word was used in a given verse when perhaps several other words would have indicated the same thought. There is an academic as well as spiritual implication for these words, which is beyond the scope of this essay, but the larger point is to ask ourselves that in our efforts to understand divine texts in non-Arabic languages, not only must we ensure accuracy in translation, we must ensure our theology is preserved in the process.

For the sake of brevity, I will illustrate two examples of where the popular translation may undermine theology.

The first example is the popular translation of Surah al-Duha, Verse 7. The verse ( وَوَجَدَكَ ضَآلاًّ۬ فَهَدَىٰ  ) is often translated as “And He found you (O Prophet(S)) lost (wandering) and He guided you” or some variation of the sort. [1]  Indeed, looking at even the popular written translations (eg, Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, etc), there is a preponderance of using the word “found”.   In Arabic, the verb (وَجَدَ) indeed means to find, which implies that the one finding has lost something. This works well for humans, for we lose things all the time and then find them.[2] But it doesn’t work so well for God, because He doesn’t “find” in the way we find things because that would imply He has lost something in the first place, which we all know would be completely antithetical to Allah’s All-Knowingness. Now, there is room for nuance in English as well because we use the word “find” in non-literal senses as well, for example, “I found Assassin’s Creed 3 to be ridiculously awesome” or something similar, so one can make the argument that the translation implies this sense of the word “found”, and if so, then that’s OK, because then (وَجَدَ) would be understood as “He knew” (عَلِمَ). This is similarly how we should view this word in this verse.

A more problematic one is how to translate/explain the word ( ضَآلاًّ۬). Here the translations again mainly use a similar word “lost/unguided/wandering”, which is a literal translation of the word. For example, (ضَآلّة) literally refers to a lost camel that wanders in the desert. People get lost all the time, and that’s fine in the sense of traveling and not knowing directions. And people may be lost and wandering religiously before they come into Islam, and that’s fine too. But we can’t use this same word or have a similar understanding–ḥāsha-lillah–for the Prophet (S). He was not “wandering” or “unguided” before the formalization of his Prophethood. Our theological understanding is that Prophets are always Prophets since the time of spiritual creation (in the rūḥ state), and that the Prophet (S) was the first of creation. [3] It is blasphemous to think that the Prophet (S) was misguided or not aware of Allah before Prophethood. While several of the translations on the above link do a better job [4] with this verse, our overall understanding must not be one wherein we equate the Prophet’s (S) pre-Prophethood state to a pre-convert state.

A second example is the popular verse (2:152) (فَٱذۡكُرُونِىٓ أَذۡكُرۡكُمۡ وَٱشۡڪُرُواْ لِى وَلَا تَكۡفُرُونِ). The popular translation, including the one often mentioned by our neighborhood khateebs (may Allah bless and preserve them) is along the lines of “So remember me and I shall remember you…”. For humans, we tend to forget [5], so remembrance for us is necessary. The Qur’an reminds us that in essence, all of Revelation is to remind human beings of the primordial truth of Allah’s Oneness that they already knew and testified to long before they came into this world. The word remembrance therefore includes a prerequisite of forgetting. For Allah, clearly He is All-Knowing and His Knowledge is absolute and He never forgets. So our understanding of “I shall remember you” cannot include a sense of Him “remembering” us because He never forgets about us(20:52), even when we forget about Him. A more holistic understanding of this verb is needed here as well, one that includes ideas such as Allah elevating us when we remember Him; causing us to be remembered by the Angels when we remember Him; etc.

Again, these are beyond semantics because I have heard in both sermons and popular conversation people talk about these ayahs with an understanding that violates theology. For example, I recently heard one well-intentioned khateeb state that if one does not remember Allah, Allah will “forget” that person. He was clearly trying to inspire the audience to make more dhikr, which is great, but the idea that Allah will “forget” was problematic.

I believe we can use the popular translation terms (eg, “found”, “remember” as used in the above examples) but there needs to be an explanation when using these terms to avoid casting doubt or misunderstanding into the minds of the audience. This may require a few more sentences by a speaker to clarify, especially in public settings, but seems to be a necessary addition. Translation allows for people to understand and appreciate sacred texts in their respective languages, but we must ensure that theology is preserved at all costs. There is no benefit to understanding a verse if that leads to misunderstanding God.


For a comparison of 40+ translations of this verse, this webpage is useful

Or in my case, my wife, mom, etc., end up finding them for me since I never know where “x” is.

It is related that Jabir ibn `Abd Allah said to the Prophet : “O Messenger of Allah, may my father and mother be sacrificed for you, tell me of the first thing Allah created before all things.” He said: “O Jabir, the first thing Allah created was the light of your Prophet from His light, and that light remained (lit. “turned”) in the midst of His Power for as long as He wished, and there was not, at that time, a Tablet or a Pen or a Paradise or a Fire or an angel or a heaven or an earth. And when Allah wished to create creation, he divided that Light into four parts and from the first made the Pen, from the second the Tablet, from the third the Throne, [and from the fourth everything else].”

For example, Mufti Taqi’s translation “And He found you unaware of the way (the Shari‘ah ), then He guided you” is better. For a slightly more mystical understanding, this is good: “He found you lost in (His) love (and that of His people), and gave you guidance (so as to enable you help the people reach the goal).” I believe our understanding here must be a holistic one, but more importantly, we cannot think that the Prophet was “not guided”.

It is part of human nature to forget. The scholars of language state the word for man (insān) is related to the verb (نَسِىَ) which means “to forget”


From → Islam

One Comment
  1. Zarwa permalink

    Brother, I want to send you a personal email relating to Islam and medicine. Is there some way that I can contact you?

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