how to understand the deeper meanings of the Qur'an that get lost in translation
Extended Translation Approach
Here's the reality you're probably already aware of...
When the Qur’aan is translated in any language other than Arabic, an enormous amount of meaning gets lost in translation.
You've probably heard that before, but you might not be aware of the sheer EXTENT of what is lost.
It is enormous. Mind-boggling.
The result is that the reader or listener does not receive the basic message of what the verses are communicating. Let alone being able to appreciate the miracle or be impacted by the verses in the way the pre-Islamic Arab was impacted.
In this article I'm going to expose you to an approach I've been using where we leverage the rules of grammar and the principles of بلاغة (rhetoric) to not only recover those lost meanings but reincorporate them into one flowing translation.
This is HUGE.
The translation will essentially double in size.
In Surah Al-Ra’d (Verse 31) Allah says:
وَلَوۡ اَنَّ قُرۡاٰنًا سُيِّرَتۡ بِهِ الۡجِبَالُ اَوۡ قُطِّعَتۡ بِهِ الۡاَرۡضُ اَوۡ كُلِّمَ بِهِ الۡمَوۡتٰى بَلْ لِّلّٰهِ الۡاَمۡرُ جَمِيۡعًا
Had it been the case, that the Qur’aan, through it mountains could be moved or large distances could be traversed very very quickly, or dead people (could be brought back to life and then) spoken to. Rather, all authority belongs to Allah.
Identifying The Elements That Are Missing Using Common Sense and Some Knowledge Of Grammar:
When you hear that translation, immediately you feel something is missing. Because had it been the case, starts off hypothetically.
Every hypothetical sentence is really made up of two sentences separated by a comma. (If…, then…). So, what would happen had it been the case, that the Qur’aan, through it mountains could be moved? It doesn’t say.
Instead of completing the sentence, it goes on to talk about Rather all authority belongs to Allah.
How do we make sense of this?
Establishing The Theme And Context
First, we establish the context by looking at the earlier verses and come up with a theme.
What is the purpose of the verse?
Then we add some extra words at the front, and thereafter we surface the sentence that is missing, which is the second half of the hypothetical sentence.
Let me do that for you.
Our scholar, Moulana Thanvi (19 August 1863 [05 Rabi' al-Thani 1280 AH]) – 4 July 1943 [17 Rajab 1362 AH]), who we draw from in the tafsir writes in Bayan-ul-Qur’aan that the mushriks (polytheists) in Makkah used to approach the Prophet (peace be upon him) and make ridiculous requests.
They used to say that we can’t really believe in you because you haven’t produced the kind of miracle that appeals to us. If we were able to hold your Qur’aan in our hand, point it at a mountain and the mountain would start moving. Or if we were able to hold your Qur’aan in our hand and all of a sudden we can move at the speed of light, i.e. we can traverse these large distances very very quickly. Or if we can walk up to the grave and the dead person comes alive, and we can start speaking to the dead person.... then, these are the kind of things we are looking for. If you can do that we can believe in you. Unfortunately, since you haven’t done that, we can’t really believe in you.
This is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) was up against and what he was dealing with. This is discouraging, disheartening and irritating to say the least.
In this verse Allah is comforting and consoling his prophet (peace be upon him). This is a تَسَلِّىverse.
With that in mind lets add some extra words at the front of the sentence and re-translate it. We will extend it a little.
Allah is saying that:
Instead of making the appreciation of the Qur’aan’s miracle dependant on تَدَبُّر, i.e. dependant on pondering, reflecting and thinking - if we were to make it effortless - because right now if you want to appreciate the miracle of the Qur’aan you have to put in some work, you have to learn the Arabic language and the dynamics of how the language works. You have to think, ponder, reflect and read, the more you do that the more you experience the miracles of the Qur’aan. Allah is saying that instead of making the appreciation of the Qur’aan’s miracle dependant on all of this effort, if we were to make it effortless, e.g. if we were to reveal such a Qur’aan that through it mountains could be moved, or you hold it in your hand you are able to traverse large distances, or the dead person could be brought back to life and be spoken to,(they still would not believe.)
“They still would not believe” is the sentence that is missing.
How we arrived at the missing sentence
لَوْ is a particle in the Arabic language that absolutely requires two sentences to follow it, separated by a comma. The full verse (quoted above) is in the power of a single sentence. There is no second sentence. It is the job of the tafsir scholars to resurface what that sentence is.
Maulana Thanvi writes in Urdu تب بھی ایمان نہ لاتے (tab bhi imaan na laatai).
In Jalaalayn the commentator Imam Suyuti says لَما امَنُوا (they still would not believe), and then Rather all authority belongs to Allah. As you can see it still doesn’t flow the way we would expect it to.
How we arrived at the second missing sentence
There is still something missing...
I say that because the word بَلْ “rather” is a conjunction. It deflects attention away from a previous statement and refocuses that attention on something new.
If it was like this “(they still would not believe, rather other people would believe)” then it would flow. Because now you are hearing the word “rather” being used the way we would expect it to be used. But, it doesn’t say that. It says “they still would not believe. Rather all authority belongs to Allah.”
Where is that sentence from which the attention is being deflected? What does their not believing have to do with Allah possessing all authority?
There is something missing.
Here is how we fill in that gap. From the beginning again.
Allah is saying that instead of making the appreciation of the Qur’aan’s miracle dependant on tadabbur (pondering, reflecting, thinking, putting in effort), if we were to make it effortless e.g. if we were to reveal such a Qur’an that through it mountains could be moved, long distances could be traversed very very quickly, or dead people could be (brought to life and then) spoken to, they still would not believe. Because, all of these things are conventional means and causes. And causes are NEVER intrinsically effective. Rather, all authority belongs to Allah.
The reason they still would not believe is because observing miracles is a means that one would expect to lead to the observer becoming a believer. Similar to how when you drink water, you would expect the water to quench your thirst. The drinking of water is a سَبَب for the quenching of thirst. And 99.9% of the time that is what happens.
When you drink a glass of water and previously you were thirsty, the thirst is now quenched.
These are أَسْبَاب, conventional means. It is not the water doing the quenching. Allah creates the water, Allah creates the drinking process and He creates the subsequent quenching of thirst.
It is like when fire burns. Fire doesn’t do the burning. Allah creates the fire. Allah creates the flammable substance that the fire comes into contact with. Allah creates the connection between the two, and He creates the subsequent burning.
So, when a مُشْرِك (polytheist) observes a miracle occurring at the hands of a Prophet - like the mountain moving, or being able to travel at the speed of light, or the dead person coming to life - we would expect that to lead to the observer becoming a Muslim. Similar to how we would expect that water, when it is drunk, to lead to the quenching of thirst. Just like that is not 100% necessary. It will only happen if Allah willed it. Because Allah creates those events separately.
Similarly, over here there is no guarantee that the polytheist will become a Muslim.
Especially if they are a مُعَانِد (stubborn rejector). They are not a truth seeker and they are only doing it to irritate and annoy. This is what the Makkans were doing. They were approaching the Prophet (peace be upon him) with these ridiculous and foolish requests. Not because, if those requests were entertained, they had some intention of becoming Muslim. They were just doing it to be irritating and annoying. Allah does not guide such مُعَانِدِين (stubborn rejectors).
Here is the translation (continued)
… they still would not believe. Because all of these events are merely أَسْبَاب (conventional means). And أَسْباب are never مَؤَثِّر حَقِيقي (intrinsic 100% of the time). They are not intrinsic in the true sense of the word. بَلْ لِّلّٰهِ الۡاَمۡرُ جَمِيۡعًا Rather Allah is مَؤَثِّر حَقِيقي. It will only happen if Allah has willed for you to go to Paradise.
That is the conclusion of the meaning.
If you compare that final translation with the translation that we started off with. Now you have an idea of what it means by meanings to be lost in translation.
Translation we started out with:
Had it been the case, that the Qur’aan, through it mountains can be moved or large distances could be traversed very very quickly, or dead people (could be bought to life and then) spoken to. Rather, all authority belongs to Allah.
Instead of making the appreciation of the Qur’aan’s miracle dependant on tadabbur (pondering and reflecting), if we were to make it effortless e.g. if were to reveal such a Qur’an that through it mountains could be moved, long distances could be traversed very very quickly, or dead people could be (brought to life and then) spoken to, they still would not believe. Because, all of these things are conventional means and causes. And causes are NEVER intrinsically effective. Rather, all authority belongs to Allah.
When we teach tafsir classes we do this consistently with every sentence. We talk about the significance of واللهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ or واللهُ غَفُورٌ رَحَيمٌ at the end of the verses. What is the significance of that?
Sometimes it says عَلِيمٌ حَكِيمٌ (Allah is All-knowing and Wise), and sometimes it says واللهُ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَاب (Allah is severe in punishing). We link up every sentence to the previous sentences, we talk about the relevance of it and we surface the meanings that get lost in translation.
Join me on weekend mornings where we study the tafsir of the entire Qur'an using this approach
If you enjoy this kind of discussion then insha’Allah you might want to consider applying for our High Level Tafsir program.
High Level Tafsir (HLT) is a new program I started some months ago with a few dozen of our advanced students.
As of this writing we're on Surah al-an'aam (in the 7th juz) and the plan is to complete the entire Qur'aan using the approach I demonstrated for you in this blog post.
It's a multi-year project. I'm expecting it to take 3 years.
HLT is not a beginner course. It presupposes that the student has covered the entire first year of the Shariah Program's flagship 2 year online course or the equivalent of that at some other institution.
It's ideal for madrasa students in the later years of the darse nizami curriculum. Or even graduates (full blown scholars) that would like to deepen their own understanding and study using this involved approach.
If you feel you qualify, you may contact us and explain what you've studied. Based on the details you share we'll suggest whether it makes sense for you to enroll in HLT or perhaps we can recommend joining the 2 year course midway. There are a few options we'd be happy to share with you, inshallah. ...