Many have asked the interesting question “What is the Qur’an’s relationship with previous scriptures?“. This question can be answered by the Qur’an itself:
And unto thee O Prophet have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth
the truth, confirming the truth of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations
and determining what is true therein.
Judge, then, between the followers of earlier revelation in accordance with
what God has bestowed from on high, and do not follow their errant views,
forsaking the truth that has come unto thee. [Quran 5:48]
The meaning of this verse has been argued by many Christians, who claim that the translation (by Muhammed Asad) is incorrect, and in actuality, the verse ‘proves’ that the Qur’an does not consider the Bible to have misrepresented the ‘word of God’.
This assertion was subsequently criticised by some fundamentalist Christians and the following arguments made:
- that the Qur’an, which is described as musaddiq and muhaymin over previous scriptures, suggests that it protects previous scriptures from being lost or corrupted; and
- that the words “whatever there still remains of earlier revelations and determining what is true therein” are an interpolation.
Paul asked me for my assessment of the translation in light of these criticisms, which is what follows.
A very simple response to argument (1) would be that, insofar as the Qur’an confirms or corroborates any specific part of previous revelation, those parts are “preserved” through the Qur’an. However, the Arabic does not point to “preservation” in this ayah and the Qur’an is doing something much more advanced, including setting a standard for what qualifies as “the book”/”earlier revelations”, as I will show below. In any event the ayah does not demonstrate argument (1) above. This leaves Ken to rely on a “lone English translation”, (Ahmed Ali: preserving them (from change and corruption)” – I will show below that the “preservation” idea does not really stand and, even here, Ahmed Ali tentatively uses brackets).
With regards to Argument (2), it should be noted that translations of the Qur’an cannot be word-for-word translations, and at best will be interpretations of, or meanings of, the Qur’an. Indeed, the variety of meanings for any one word in Arabic cannot be expressed in any other language. I have considered the Arabic ayah against Asad’s delivery of it and found that Asad’s translation is a good example of this reality. (I’ll refer to it as a translation for ease of reference in this email). This is mainly because the translator: (i) does not use parentheses where he has made inferences that are not directly mentioned in the Arabic; and (ii) sets the meaning of nuanced phrases in beautiful terms but, in fact, is not very different from the others, such as those that Ken cited. I will demonstrate this below.
I have considered the question mainly from a linguistic point of view and have set out my reasoning under the following questions:
- What is the translator’s drafting style?
- What does musaddiq mean?
- Which “scriptures” are being referred to?
- What does muhaymin mean?
1. Asad’s Style
– And unto thee O Prophet have We vouchsafed this divine writ, setting forth the truth,
In the simplest terms possible, the Arabic says: “And we have sent down to you the book in truth”. It is usually inferred that “you” refers to Muhammad (s). However, you will note that other translators, such as Muhsin Khan, will put “Muhammad/Prophet” in brackets to show that it is not in the Arabic, but inferred.
The Arabic also simply says ‘the book’ – it doesn’t say “divine writ” – again, this is an example of interpretation rather than a translation.
The Arabic, “bilHaqq” can mean that the Book is revealed “in truth”, or “with the truth”.
So far, you will notice that the underlined are inferred meanings (which should be marked in brackets) or interpretations, or just flowery language as opposed to word-for-word translations. His style of ornate language and not using parentheses continues below.
– confirming the truth
The root (s-d-q) means to speak the truth; to prove to be true; to fit exactly; to keep, or fulfill, one’s promise. What Asad has quite reasonably translated as “confirming the truth” is the word musaddiq, which is the participle of the second form of this root, meaning: to deem credible, accept as true; to consider or pronounce as true. Musaddiq is also used to mean certification or attestation. Almost every translator has translated this as “confirming” or “verifying”. This “confirmation” can also point to what the early scriptures promised of Allah’s final Prophet (s). This meaning is also highlighted by Sher Ali, who makes use of the first form of the verb and translates it as “fulfilling”.
3. The Book
– of whatever there still remains of earlier revelations
What is being confirmed or verified here? The subject of the confirmation is what is “bayna yadayhi” of “the book” (“of the book” being, “min al kitaab”).
(i) “bayna yadayhi”
Literally, “bayna yadayhi” means “between his two hands” and, as an idiom, means “in front of or before him; in his presence; in his power”. Some translators deliver this as “what came before”.
To understand the use*, note the preceding ayah (TMQ 5:46), where it is used in reference to Jesus (as) and the Injeel “confirming” (musaddiq) what was “bayna yadayhi” of the Torah. Ibn Kathir, in his exegesis (here), explains this as meaning that Jesus (as) adhered to it (the Torah) and ruled by it (i.e. it was in his presence and power). It also appears that the Injeel abrogated parts of the Torah (TMQ 3:50: “And [I have come] confirming what was before me of the Torah and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you.”). If the Injeel abrogated the Torah, then what is the nature of the “confirmation” of it? This does not point to “preservation”. On the contrary, it points to fulfilling or confirming what is correct of it (understanding naskh and how the Qur’an abrogates itself, will explain this – the abrogation and the abrogated were both “correct” but the abrogated no longer valid).
(ii) “of the book”
In light of the above, “whatever there still remains” is one valid interpretation of “bayna yadayhi min al kitaab” (“min al kitaab” – “of the book”). To be clear, the ayah states “We reveal to you the book […] confirming what was bayna yadayhi of the book. In other words, it is not referring to or contrasting with specific scriptures like the Torah or Injeel. Indeed, corruptions of “the book” would not be considered part of “the book” and would not be “confirmed”. As such, it appears to be confirming what would actually qualify as “the book”. Hence, Asad suggests it only confirms what remains of it in its original form. This translation agrees with the other translations.
Also, contrary to what critics may assert, there is no language in the Arabic ayah to suggest preventative action from future corruption or loss of the old scriptures. At best, it “confirms” or “fulfills” what currently existed of it in its original form when TMQ 5:48 was revealed (hence Asad’s choice of words). This is further emphasised by the below.
– and determining what is true therein.
The word that Asad has translated as “determining” is muhaymin. This is from the root (h-y-m-n) (an unusual quadriliteral root) which means to say “amen”. When used with the preposition “alaa” (as it is here), it means to guard; to watch; to control; to keep an eye on. The derivative, muhaymin means supervising; controlling; guardian; master of. Following from these meanings, some have translated this as a “criterion” or “hegemony”. ”[D]etermining what is true therein” is another way of saying “guarding what would qualify as “the book”” and is a valid interpretation ofmuhaymin. The critics suggest that it means “to preserve” – it simply does not (notably, the Qur’an uses words with the root of (h-f-dh) when describing the promised preservation of the Qur’an (see TMQ 15:9).
As such, we can see that Asad’s translation is thoughtful and deeply involved in the interpretation and meaning – but it has to be or these phrases and terms would not make sense in English. In any case, it is not a deviant or lone translation and the ayah itself does not point to the “preservation” of earlier revelations.
*This phrase is used at least 17 times in the Qur’an. See TMQ 2:97, 3:3, 5:46, 5:48, 6:92, 10:37, 12:111, 13:11, 25:27, 34:12, 34:31, 35:31, 41:42, 46:21, 46:30, 76:67.