What a difference a little translation choice can make!

What a difference a little translation choice can make! September 11, 2019

 

Inside the JFSB courtyard
Looking eastward across the inner courtyard of the Joseph F. Smith Building, where my college (Humanities) and my department (Asian and Near Eastern Languages) and my personal office are housed (BYU photograph).

 

One of the courses that I’m teaching this term focuses on reading the Qur’an in English translation.  We’re using M. A. S. Abdel Haleem’s version, in the Oxford World’s Classics series.  I haven’t examined every English translation of the Qur’an — there are quite a few more of them today than there were back when I was a student — but Abdel Haleem’s is certainly pretty good and I have no major bone to pick with it.  Nor even many minor ones.

 

Translation can really matter, though.

 

I offer as an illustration a couple of passages that I’ve slightly modified from Abdel Haleem’s rendering:

 

Qur’an 3:19 :  “True Religion, in God’s eyes, is Islam.”

Qur’an 3:85:  “If anyone seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter.”

 

Now, I’ve seen more than a few translations of these verses that have read pretty much as I have them above.  And, when they’re so rendered, some anti-Muslim polemicists use them to argue that Islam is intolerant, and that Muslims believe that non-Muslims will not be accepted with God but will be punished in the Hereafter, that only converting to Islam can save us from the wrath of God.

 

One can argue about such matters, of course, and some Muslims (particularly on the extreme) certainly do believe that all non-Muslims will go to Hell.  But others don’t believe that.  And my point is that these verses and others like them don’t say that all non-Muslims go to Hell.

 

The Arabic word islam, which occurs in both of the verses that I cite, simply means “submission” — presumably, in these contexts, “submission to God.”  It is very dubious that the term had already come to be the proper name of a distinct religion (“Islam”) during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, while the Qur’an was still in the process of being revealed and long before it had been gathered together and “published.”

 

So M. A. S. Abdel Haleem is completely correct, in my view, to translate these passages as in fact he does:

 

Qur’an 3:19 :  “True Religion, in God’s eyes, is islam [devotion to Him alone].”

Qur’an 3:85:  “If anyone seeks a religion other than [islam] complete devotion to God, it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter.”

 

In fact, I myself might have rendered them more or less as follows:

 

Qur’an 3:19 :  “True Religion, in God’s eyes, is submission [to His will].”

Qur’an 3:85:  “If anyone seeks a religion other than submission [to God], it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter.”

 

What these passages say is that nobody who is determinedly disobedient to God will be saved, and that true religion involves bowing to the sovereignty of God.  Those who go into the next world persisting in rebellion against God won’t prosper in doing so.

 

There are few theists, I expect, who would actually dispute that proposition.

 

 


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