By Mln. Abrar Habib (Takmīl Graduate, 2019)
Knowledge is passed from heart to heart. Those before us passed their knowledge on and that tradition will continue until the Final Hour. We should always rely on those who are more knowledgeable than us from our pious predecessors.
Today, unsupervised exposure to Islāmic literature has increased. And people are attempting to reach self-concluded juristic rulings. Many do not feel that it is necessary to learn under the tutelage of trained scholars. They feel that they are capable of deducing judgments on their own. Some have developed an adverse opinion of taqlīd and the opinions formed over a thousand years of inherited scholarship. As a result, they rely on translations of the Qurʾān and the books of ḥadīth, as if reading translations can take the place of living scholars.
These individuals do not apprehend that the translations are subject to the opinions adopted by the translator. What does a translator do when the meaning of a particular word or phrase has a dual connotation? It seems evident that some type of marginal note is necessary. However, most translations do not highlight the differences in juristic interpretations. Herein, some examples of different translations of the Qurʾān will be presented. These differences are founded on the juristic position held by the translators.
In verse forty-three of Sūrat al-Nisāʾ, Allāh discusses the actions that invalidate one’s ablution. Allāh says:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَقْرَبُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَأَنتُمْ سُكَارَىٰ حَتَّىٰ تَعْلَمُوا مَا تَقُولُونَ وَلَا جُنُبًا إِلَّا عَابِرِي سَبِيلٍ حَتَّىٰ تَغْتَسِلُوا ۚ وَإِن كُنتُم مَّرْضَىٰ أَوْ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ أَوْ جَاءَ أَحَدٌ مِّنكُم مِّنَ الْغَائِطِ أَوْ لَامَسْتُمُ النِّسَاءَ فَلَمْ تَجِدُوا مَاءً فَتَيَمَّمُوا صَعِيدًا طَيِّبًا فَامْسَحُوا بِوُجُوهِكُمْ وَأَيْدِيكُمْ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَفُوًّا غَفُورًا (سورة النساء، الآية:٤٣)
One of the disputed elements of this verse is the word لامستم. It has multiple possible meanings. It can be translated as either sexual intercourse or merely touching the opposite gender.
If translated as sexual intercourse, this verse will imply that ablution will not be nullified through non-penetrative physical contact. Any other forms of physical contact (i.e., kissing, touching, etc.) with the opposite gender will not invalidate one’s ablution. This understanding is in line with the Ḥanafī Madhhab.
However, if translated as touching, this verse will imply that ablution will invalidate through any form of physical contact with the opposite gender. This understanding is in line with the the Shafiʿī Madhhab.
Observe the differences in the following translations:
Translation of Muhammad Sarwar: “… or after having had carnal relations…”
Translation of Mohsin Khan: “…or you have been in contact with women (by sexual relations)…”
If an individual picks up the above translations of Muhammad Sarwar or Mohsin Khan, he will unknowingly be adopting the fiqh position according Imām Abū Ḥanīfah’s view.
Translation of Sahih International: “..or you have contacted women…”
Translation of Pickthall: “…or ye have touched women…”
Translation of Yusuf Ali: “…or ye have been in contact with women…”
Translation of Shakir: “…or you have touched the women…”
Translation of Arberry: “…or you have touched women…”
If this individual were to pick up the above translations of Sahih International, Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Shakir, or Arberry, he would be adopting a view according to Imām Shafiʿī’s.
Another example is in verse 187 of Sūrat al-Baqarah, Allāh says:
(سورة البقرة، الآية:١٨٧) وَلَا تُبَاشِرُوهُنَّ وَأَنْتُمْ عَاكِفُونَ فِي الْمَسَاجِدِ
In this verse, the word تباشروا is a contested homonym. It can have two possible implications. It can either be translated as sexual intercourse or merely touching the opposite gender.
Observe the variations within the following translations:
Sahih International: “…And do not have relations with them as long as you are staying for worship in the mosques…”
Muhammad Sarwar: “… It is not lawful to have carnal relations with your wives during i’tikaf in the mosque…”
Mohsin Khan: “…And do not have sexual relations with them (your wives) while you are in I’tikaf…”
If one reads the above translations, he will most probably adopt the view that having sexual relations is the only form of physical contact that invalidates one’s iʿtikāf.
However, if one were to read the following verses, he will most probably adopt the view that any form of physical contact, sexual or not, will annul one’s iʿtikāf.
Pickthall: “…and touch them not, but be at your devotions in the mosques…”
Yusuf Ali: “…but do not associate with your wives while ye are in retreat in the mosques…”
Shakir: “… and have not contact with them while you keep to the mosques…”
Another example is in verse six of Sūrat al-Māʾidah. Allāh says:
يا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا قُمْتُمْ إِلَى الصَّلَاةِ فَاغْسِلُوا وُجُوهَكُمْ وَأَيْدِيَكُمْ إِلَى الْمَرَافِقِ وَامْسَحُوا بِرُءُوسِكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ إِلَى الْكَعْبَيْنِ ۚ وَإِن كُنتُمْ جُنُبًا فَاطَّهَّرُوا (سورة المائدة، الآية: ٦)
If one were to look at the placement of the word وأرجلَكم in this verse, he might get the impression that Allāh is ordering us to wipe our feet as opposed to washing them. However, this interpretation is an anomalous opinion that is not accepted by Ahl al-Sunnah. If one reviews the grammatical structure of this verse, he will recognize that the part of the verse that says وأرجلَكم is connected to the verb فاغسلوا (i.e., washing) and not وامسحوا (i.e., wiping).
Carefully observe the wording of the translations of the above verse.
Sahih International: “O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles…”
Pickthall: “O ye who believe! When ye rise up for prayer, wash you faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and lightly rub your heads and (wash) your feet up to the ankles…”
Yusuf Ali: “O ye who believe! when ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles…”
Mohsin Khan: “O you who believe! When you intend to offer As-Salat (the prayer), wash your faces and your hands (forearms) up to the elbows, rub (by passing wet hands over) your heads, and (wash) your feet up to ankles…”
If an individual picks up these translations, he will be adopting the juristic position of Ahl al-Sunnah that washing the feet is an obligation for the validity of ablution and that wiping the feet does not suffice.
However, if an individual were to read the following translations, he will be unknowingly adopting an opinion held by those who are not adherent to Ahl al-Sunnah, thinking this is what the Qurʾān intends.
Muhammad Sarwar: “Believers, when you are about to pray, wash your face and your hands along with the elbows and wipe your head and your feet to the ankles…”
Shakir: “O you who believe! when you rise up to prayer, wash your faces and your hands as far as the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet to the ankles…”
Arberry: “O believers, when you stand up to pray wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads, and your feet up to the ankles…”
One may say that the solution to this is to gather all the translations and decide which interpretation is more sensible. This method, however, is not a solution. One will find verses where the translators unanimously adopt the same translation, despite there being a juristic difference stemming from the linguistic aspects of the words.
For an example, in verse two hundred twenty-eight of Sūrat al-Baqarah, Allāh says:
وَالْمُطَلَّقَاتُ يَتَرَبَّصْنَ بِأَنْفُسِهِنَّ ثَلَاثَةَ قُرُوءٍ وَلَا يَحِلُّ لَهُنَّ أَنْ يَكْتُمْنَ مَا خَلَقَ اللَّهُ فِي أَرْحَامِهِنَّ إِنْ كُنَّ يُؤْمِنَّ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَبُعُولَتُهُنَّ أَحَقُّ بِرَدِّهِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ إِنْ أَرَادُوا إِصْلَاحًا وَلَهُنَّ مِثْلُ الَّذِي عَلَيْهِنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
In this verse, the meaning of the word قروء is differed on because it is a homonym. One of the translations of this word is the period of bleeding during a woman’s menstrual cycle, which is the interpretation accepted by the Ḥanafīs.
The other translation of this word is the opposite, purity, which is the interpretation that the Shafiʿī’s adopted. However, if one were to look at the following English translations, none of them clearly include the understanding held by the Shafiʿīs.
Sahih International: “Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods…”
Pickthall: “Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping themselves apart, three (monthly) courses…”
Yusuf Ali: “Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods…”
Shakir: “And the divorced women should keep themselves in waiting for three courses…”
Muhammad Sarwar: “The divorced women must wait up to three menstrual cycles before another marriage…”
Mohsin Khan: “And divorced women shall wait (as regards their marriage) for three menstrual periods…”
Arberry: “Divorced women shall wait by themselves for three periods…”
Another example of this is in verse two-hundred thirty of Sūrat al-Baqarah, Allāh says:
فَإِنْ طَلَّقَهَا فَلَا تَحِلُّ لَهُ مِنْ بَعْدُ حَتَّى تَنْكِحَ زَوْجًا غَيْرَهُ فَإِنْ طَلَّقَهَا فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِمَا أَنْ يَتَرَاجَعَا إِنْ ظَنَّا أَنْ يُقِيمَا حُدُودَ اللَّهِ وَتِلْكَ حُدُودُ اللَّهِ يُبَيِّنُهَا لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ
In this verse, the word تنكح is a homonym that can either refer to sexual intercourse or the marriage contract. The vast majority of scholars agree the term نكاح in this verse refers to sexual intercourse while a minority takes this to refer to the nikāḥ contract alone.
However, if you look at the following translations, you will see that all these translators adopted a translation corresponding to the minority view, not alluding to the majority view at all.
Sahih International: “…then she is not lawful to him afterward until [after] she marries a husband other than him…”
Pickthall: “…then she is not lawful unto him thereafter until she hath wedded another husband…”
Yusuf Ali: “… until after she has married another husband and He has divorced her…”
Shakir: “…until she marries another husband; then if he divorces her there is no blame on them both if they return to each other (by marriage)…”
Muhammad Sarwar: “… it is not lawful for the husband to resume marital relations with her or remarry her until she has been married and divorced by another husband…”
Mohsin Khan: “… she is not lawful unto him thereafter until she has married another husband…”
Arberry: “… until she marries another husband…”
For someone unacquainted with Arabic and its linguistics who merely relies on what the translator wrote, he is performing taqlīd, whether he would like to admit it or not. An individual who regards himself as independent from the scholars and deems himself qualified to derive juristic positions without the assistance of the learned will err.
 However, this argument is in accordance to the riwāyāt of the Qurʾān that correspond to this grammatical structure. Generally, most if not all English translators of the Qurʾān rely on the riwāyah of Ḥafṣ, which is in accordance to the above grammatical structure.