Quotations play a significant role in the Quran, particularly when Allah shares stories from history. To fully grasp their meaning, it is essential to understand what quotations are and how they function.
A quotation is the act of repeating another person’s statements to someone else. Quotations can be divided into two categories: by word and by meaning. When quoting by word, one repeats the exact words of another person without changing any of the wording. In contrast, quotations by meaning involve conveying the essence of someone’s words without necessarily using the exact same words.
Most of the quotations in the Quran are by meaning, rather than word for word. This article will examine the evidence supporting this fact and the implications that result from it.
Translation is the process of turning words from one language into the words of another language. Since the Quran is in Arabic, and many of the stories it tells are about non-Arabic speakers, Allah translates their words into Arabic.
This means that most of the Quran’s quotations are not exact, almost by definition.
But can there be a ‘perfect’ translation? The simple answer is no.
While some translations might be considered poor if they fail to capture the meaning of the original text or if they are not well-expressed in their own language, the idea of a perfect translation does not exist. This is because languages cannot be compared directly one-to-one.
Sometimes, a single word in one language might need two words in another to convey the same meaning, with each word capturing a different aspect of the meaning. In situations like this, there is no single perfect way to translate. Instead, the quality of a translation depends on what part of the meaning the translator wants to emphasize. Other factors include how natural the translator wants the quote to sound in the target language, how they handle metaphors, and how readable they aim to make the translation.
This principle also applies to the Quran. Allah’s translation of a quote reflects the aspect He wants to emphasize and how beautifully He wishes to express it in Arabic. It does not necessarily capture the full or exact meaning of the original quote. Getting the word-for-word meaning perfectly might even make the text hard to read.
Those who argue that Arabic is perfect enough to fully convey the meaning of any language are mistaken, and there’s no evidence to support this claim. Plain observation shows it is incorrect.
Moreover, Allah revealed other texts like the Torah and the Injeel, where He narrated stories with quotes in different languages. Arguing that Hebrew and Greek could convey every meaning perfectly would lead to a similar contradiction.
In conclusion, beyond basic accuracy, the success of a translation depends on what serves the purpose best. The same principle applies to the Quran. It is not about achieving a so-called perfect translation but about making choices that best convey the intended meaning with the intended eloquence.
Quotation By Meaning
Quotation by meaning, known as riwāyah bil-ma’nā in hadith sciences, has often been viewed with skepticism by hadith scholars. There are three main reasons for this skepticism.
Firstly, there is a risk that the narrator may not fully grasp the original statement and might misrepresent its meaning, either entirely or in part. If this misunderstanding happens repeatedly across multiple narrators, the true meaning could be completely lost. Secondly, quoting by meaning rather than using the exact words might prevent people from deriving specific benefits from the precise wording of a quotation. Thirdly, some might mistakenly believe that the quotation by meaning is the exact wording, leading them to draw incorrect conclusions or baseless benefits.
However, these concerns do not apply to Allah’s quotations in the Quran.
The first reason is irrelevant because Allah, being all-knowing, understands everyone perfectly and represents their words without error. There is no risk of misrepresentation.
The second reason does not apply to the Quran’s quotations either, as the individuals being quoted are usually not lawmakers in Islam, so their exact words are not as critical. Any benefits or insights would come from how Allah portrays their story, making it perfectly acceptable to analyze the specific wording of His translation.
The third reason, though, is still relevant to the Quran. Many people might mistakenly believe that a quotation is a word-for-word representation and, as a result, derive baseless insights. This is a significant concern, and examples of this common mistake will be discussed later in this article.
Example 1: Musa and Khidr (AS)
The best way to illustrate that the Quran and Sunnah’s quotations are by meaning is to analyze instances where the same story is narrated more than once.
One significant example is the story of Musa and Khidr (AS), found in Surah Kahf and also recounted by the Prophet (SAW) in an authentic report.
Allah says about their meeting:
Moses said to him, “May I follow you on [the condition] that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgement?”Quran 18:66
The Prophet (SAW) describes the same meeting:
Musa (AS) greeted him with salam, so he said, “And how does your land have salam?”
He said, “I am Musa.”
[Khidr] asked, “The Musa of Bani Israel?”
[Musa] said, “Yes, may I follow you on [the condition] that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgement?”Sahih Bukhari
At first glance, it is clear that Allah’s version in the Quran omits the beginning of the conversation, including the greetings and introductions.
More importantly, Allah’s quote of Musa (AS)’s statement cuts off the initial part of the sentence. In the narration, the sentence starts with “yes” in response to the previous question. Allah did not include that part as it was not relevant to Him.
A quote in the Quran, therefore, does not necessarily indicate the full conversation or even the entire statement being quoted.
Then, Allah says:
[Khidr] said, “Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience. And how can you have patience for what you do not encompass in knowledge?”
[Moses] said, “You will find me, if Allah wills, patient, and I will not disobey you in [any] order.”
He said, “Then if you follow me, do not ask me about anything until I make to you about it mention.”Quran 18:67-69
The Prophet (SAW) narrates the same conversation as:
Khidr said to him, “O Musa, you have some knowledge from the knowledge of Allah that Allah has taught you but I do not know, and I have some knowledge from the knowledge of Allah that Allah has taught me but you do not know.”
He said, “Still, I will follow you.”
He said, “Then if you follow me, do not ask me about anything until I make to you about it mention.”Sahih Bukhari
This variation in quotes between the Quran and the Hadith is fascinating. Khidr’s statement and Musa (AS)’s response are entirely different in the two sources, yet the last statement by Khidr is precisely the same.
Some might argue that one of these two versions is a quotation by meaning of the other, but that would be a stretch.
A more plausible explanation is that the Prophet (SAW) was supplementing the conversation with parts he knew were not included in the Quran, assuming that the portions in the Quran were already widely known and understood.
It is possible that the statements of the Prophet (SAW) are additional remarks that were made during the same exchange mentioned in the Quran. Alternatively, there may have been two separate exchanges before Khidr laid out his condition to Musa.
Either way, this example illustrates how the Quran selectively includes parts of conversations that Allah considers most relevant to His purpose in the Surah. This editing does not detract from the meaning but rather sharpens the focus on the what Allah wishes to convey.
Then, Allah says:
So they set out, until when they had embarked on the ship, al-Khidhr tore it open. [Moses] said, “Have you torn it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing.”Quran 18:70
The Prophet reports the objection of Musa (AS) as the following:
Musa (AS) said to him, “These people gave us a ride without charge, and you went to their ship then tore it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing.”Sahih Bukhari
Note that Allah’s version phrases Musa (AS)’s statement as a standalone question with the hamza of interrogation (hamzatul-istifham), whereas the report presents the question indicated by tone alone. This change, while maintaining the same meaning, shows that Allah can alter the exact form of a sentence.
Additionally, an intriguing difference between the passages is that the Prophet’s additions lack rhyme, while the Quran’s quotes maintain it. This aspect highlights how the Quran translates not just word-by-word but in a way that fits the flow of the Surah.
In conclusion, this example demonstrates that the Quran’s quotations by meaning are flexible, focusing on relevance and eloquence rather than exact wording.
Example 2: Musa (AS) and His Family
The meeting of Musa (AS) with Allah at the burning tree is narrated in detail multiple times and referenced often without detail. Detailed narrations are found in three Surahs: Ta Ha, Naml, and Qasas.
All three Surahs share what Musa (AS) told his family when he saw the fire:
- ⟪Stay here; indeed, I have perceived a fire; perhaps I can bring you a torch or find at the fire some guidance.⟫ (20:10)
- In Surah Naml, he says, ⟪Indeed, I have perceived a fire. I will bring you from there information or will bring you a burning torch that you may warm yourselves.⟫ (27:7)
- ⟪Stay here; indeed, I have perceived a fire. Perhaps I will bring you from there [some] information or burning wood from the fire that you may warm yourselves.⟫ (28:29)
Here are the three quotes in Arabic:
- امْكُثُوا إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا لَعَلِّي آتِيكُمْ مِنْهَا بِقَبَسٍ أَوْ أَجِدُ عَلَى النَّارِ هُدًى
- إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا سَآتِيكُمْ مِنْهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوْ آتِيكُمْ بِشِهَابٍ قَبَسٍ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَصْطَلُونَ
- امْكُثُوا إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا لَعَلِّي آتِيكُمْ مِنْهَا بِخَبَرٍ أَوْ جَذْوَةٍ مِنَ النَّارِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَصْطَلُونَ
Several elements are similar:
- “I have perceived a fire.” إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا
- “I will bring you from there.” آتِيكُمْ مِنْهَا
- He says he will bring news or guidance
- He says he will bring a torch from the fire
However, differences are also present:
- The first and second mention “Stay here.” امْكُثُوا
- The first and third use لَعَلِّي, and the second uses the sīn of future. لَعَلِّي might translate to “perhaps I will,” while sīn would be a plain future tense “I will.”
- The second and third use khabar (news) to refer to seeking directions, while the first uses hudā (guidance).
- The first uses qabas (torch), the second shihāb qabas (fire/torch), and the third jazwah min an-nār (torch from fire) to refer to the torch
- The second and third mention a reason for bringing the torch by saying “so that you may warm yourselves”
- The first mentions the torch before mentioning guidance, and the second and third reverse this order.
Firstly, notice how different instances use various words to refer to the torch Musa (AS) intended to bring and the news he wanted to obtain. If one perfect translation for non-Arabic words existed, this would not be the case.
Secondly, observe how Allah changes the order of items. Once, His quote mentions bringing guidance second, and the rest of the times, He mentions it first. Mentioning it second in Surah Ta Ha fits the rhyme and is likely why Allah translates it as hudā instead of khabar in that Surah.
Lastly, these three passages show that Musa (AS) did not say all three statements individually. Some people mistakenly believe that multiple quotations that differ slightly mean all were said one after the other. Clearly, no sensible person would repeat such similar statements, as one suffices to explain what he was doing.
Example 3: Musa to Pharaoh
Allah narrates Musa (AS)’s first sentence to the Pharaoh in three different passages:
- ⟪And Moses said, “O Pharaoh, I am a messenger from the Lord of the worlds [Who is] obligated not to say about Allah except the truth. I have come to you with clear evidence from your Lord, so send with me the Children of Israel.”⟫ (7:105)
- ⟪So go to him and say, ‘Indeed, we are messengers of your Lord, so send with us the Children of Israel and do not torment them. We have come to you with a sign from your Lord. And peace will be upon he who follows the guidance.⟫ (20:47)
- ⟪Go to Pharaoh and say, ‘We are the envoy of the Lord of the worlds, [Commanded to say], “Send with us the Children of Israel.”‘”⟫ (26:16-17)
What stands out in these verses is the variation in how they identify themselves as messengers. In the first quote, it’s in the singular form using “I” and the word rasūl (messenger). In the second, it changes to “we” with the dual word rasūlā (two messengers). In the third, it continues with “we,” but returns to the singular rasūl (messenger). The last one is interpreted by some as meaning “envoy” because of the singular usage.
From these examples, it’s clear that a quotation does not need to strictly adhere to the exact numerical form of the original statement. A plural form can be converted into a singular, and vice versa. When someone says “we are messengers,” it inherently includes the meaning “I am a messenger.”
Similarly, a singular form can change to a plural if the plural meaning is contained within the singular. If a leader of a group of soldiers declares “I have come to fight you,” it carries the implication “We have come to fight you.” Therefore, there would be no inconsistency in narrating that statement in the plural. The message remains the same.
Example 4: Advisors to Pharaoh
Allah says ⟪[Pharaoh] said to the eminent ones around him, “Indeed, this is a learned magician. He wants to drive you out of your land by his magic, so what do you advise?” They said, “Postpone [the matter of] him and his brother and send among the cities gatherers Who will bring you every learned, skilled magician.”⟫ (26:34-37)
He also says ⟪Said the eminent among the people of Pharaoh, “Indeed, this is a learned magician Who wants to expel you from your land [through magic], so what do you instruct?” They said, “Postpone [the matter of] him and his brother and send among the cities gatherers Who will bring you every learned magician.”⟫ (7:109-112)
Firstly, the attribution of the statement “Indeed, this is a learned magician Who wants to expel you from your land” varies between the two passages. In the first, it is attributed to Pharaoh, and in the second, to his advisors.
They may have conversed among themselves, and some might have echoed Pharaoh’s words. However, a more plausible explanation is that Allah attributes Pharaoh’s statement to his advisors because they concurred with it and acted accordingly, even as seen in the first passage.
This attribution resembles how Allah credits actions to those who endorse them, even if they did not perform the actions themselves. For example, Allah tells the Jews during the Prophet (SAW)’s time: ⟪Then why did you kill the prophets of Allah before, if you are [indeed] believers?⟫ (2:91). Here, the killing is attributed to them not because they personally did it but because they approved of it.
Similarly, if a lawyer asks a witness, “Do you agree that you are a doctor?” and the witness concurs, it would be accurate to say the witness claimed to be a doctor.
Regarding the statement “so what do you advise,” it might be attributed to Pharaoh in both passages, with an implied “Pharaoh said” in the second one. Support for this interpretation comes from Allah’s use of “they said” following the question, which would be redundant if the entire speech were solely from the advisors.
Secondly, there’s a subtle difference in word choice between the two passages. The first uses the word ib’ath, and the second uses arsil to mean “send.” These words serve almost synonymous functions.
Example 5: Allah to the Angels
This is an interesting situation in which one of the characters in the story quotes a statement that has already been quoted to us.
When the angels ask Allah why He wants to create mankind, knowing they would cause bloodshed, He responds with ⟪Indeed, I know that which you do not know⟫ (2:30).
Later, after demonstrating His wisdom, He reminds the angels, saying ⟪Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed.⟫ (2:33).
Here, Allah expands His earlier statement, “I know that which you do not know,” into “I know the unseen of the heavens and the earth.” The two statements, although different in wording, convey the same meaning.
Example 6: Magicians Believing
When the magicians witnessed the miracle performed by Musa (AS), they came to believe in him. In three different passages, Allah captures their declaration of faith:
- ⟪They said, “We have believed in the Lord of the worlds, The Lord of Moses and Aaron.”⟫ (7:121-122)
- ⟪They said, “We have believed in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.”⟫ (20:70)
- ⟪They said, “We have believed in the Lord of the worlds, The Lord of Moses and Aaron.”⟫ (26:47-48)
The first and third quotations are identical, while the second one omits the phrase “Lord of the worlds” and reverses the order of Haroon and Musa (AS).
This variation may have been influenced by the need to fit the rhyme of the passage in Surah Ta Ha. However, in the actual situation, it’s likely that they mentioned Musa (AS) first, as he was the one who performed the miracle that led them to believe.
Example 7: Pharaoh’s Threat to the Magicians
When the magicians declared their belief, the Pharaoh’s response was harsh and menacing. His threat is conveyed in three different passages:
- ⟪I will surely cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides; then I will surely crucify you all.”⟫ (7:124)
- ⟪I will surely cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will surely crucify you all.⟫ (26:49)
- ⟪So I will surely cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and you will surely know which of us is more severe in [giving] punishment and more enduring.⟫ (20:71)
The first two quotations emphasize the word “all” (أَجْمَعِينَ), indicating that no one will be spared. The third quotation omits this emphasis but adds a specific detail, mentioning that he will crucify them on the trunks of palm trees.
These variations in the quotations show how emphasis can be added or removed based on the needs of the passage. So, the presence or absence of emphasis does not necessarily indicate that it was in the original statement.
Example 8: Recitations: Musa to Pharaoh
Some people question the authenticity of the recitations of the Quran due to occasional differences in quotations. They argue that since a statement was only said once, having two recitations with different meanings must be a contradiction.
However, as has been shown so far, quotations can differ in meaning simply because of the quoter’s choice, and this does not mean there is a contradiction. It is a matter of quoting by meaning rather than exact words.
Consider the statement in Surah Isra where Musa says to Pharaoh ⟪You already know that none has sent down these [signs] except the Lord of the heavens and the earth as evidence, and indeed I think, O Pharaoh, that you are destroyed.⟫
Some recitations use the phrase ⟪I already know⟫ instead of ⟪You already know⟫.
This difference can be understood in two ways. Either Musa (AS) said something that encompassed both meanings, like “We both know” or “It is obvious,” or he said something that implied both. Saying “You already know” means the speaker is totally sure, so “I already know” would also be implied.
Musa (AS) made this statement in response to Pharaoh’s insinuation ⟪Indeed I think, O Moses, that you are affected by magic.⟫ (17:101). Allah tells us that Musa (AS) replied with confidence, showing he had no doubt in his prophethood or in others’ understanding of it.
There is, thus, no contradiction.
Example 9: Recitations: Musa to Khidr
Some Muslims have made the mistake of incorrectly combining different recitations of a quotation.
In the story where Musa (AS) speaks to Khidr after he fixes a wall, Allah quotes Musa as saying, ⟪If you wished, you could have taken for it a payment.⟫
Two recitations render the word for “take” differently: one as لَاتَّخَذْتَ (lattakhazta) and the other as لَتَخِذْتَ (latakhizta). Some scholars believe that lattakhazta contains more emphasis than latakhizta.
However, as this article has demonstrated, Allah’s quotation can be with or without emphasis and this does not necessarily reveal what Musa (AS) said. Musa (AS)’s language might not have even had such a differentiation of emphasis.
However, some people have mistakenly theorized that Musa (AS) said two different statements, once without emphasis and once with. They suggest that he first said it without emphasis, but Khidr ignored him, then he said it with emphasis. This interpretation is a misunderstanding of how quotations work and conflicts with the context of the passage. It is implausible that Khidr would ignore anything.
Others have made a less serious mistake by claiming that the recitation of lattakhazta indicates Musa (AS)’s statement also had emphasis. This is an exaggeration of the emphasis in lattakhazta. Even if it were more emphasized than latakhizta, that does not mean it contains strong emphasis itself. Additionally, the context does not show that Musa (AS) meant to emphasize his statement. He softened his words with “If you wished” to avoid angering Khidr again, which suggests a lack of strong emphasis.
In conclusion, this examination of various examples illustrates the nuanced and complex nature of quotations, particularly in the context of religious texts.
Several topics need to be considered before one analyzes a quotation:
- Quotation by Meaning: Sometimes, a statement is quoted by its intended meaning rather than its exact wording. This method can lead to variations in quotations without implying contradiction.
- Partial Meaning: Sometimes, a quotation contains part of the meaning of the original statement, like “I” for “we.”
- Synonyms and Word Choices: Different words with similar meanings might be used in various recitations or passages to convey the same message. This choice can be influenced by factors such as the rhyme and rhythm of the passage.
- Attribution: Statements or actions may be attributed to individuals based on their agreement, approval, or involvement, even if they did not utter the words or perform the actions themselves.
- Emphasis: Quotations may add or omit emphasis based on the context or the needs of the passage. Emphasis in a quotation does not necessarily imply the same level of emphasis in the original speech.
- Language Differentiation: Quotations may reflect nuances that might not have existed in the original language or the speech of the person being quoted, so that should not be confused as a nuance in the original speech.
These topics underscore the intricate relationship between the original speech and its quotations, requiting care and insight when interpreting quotations, especially in sacred texts. By appreciating these subtleties, readers can approach these texts with a more accurate analysis.