New Age Islam
Tue Aug 16 2022, 01:53 PM

Islamic Ideology ( 16 Jan 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Mistranslated and Misinterpreted Verses of the Quran


By S. Arshad, New Age Islam

17 January 2018

Translating the Quran in Urdu or English, not to speak in other languages of the world has always been a challenging task for the translators. There are Mutashabihat which are difficult ones and different translators translate them according to their own understanding. But there are many Muhkamat which also pose a challenge before the translators because of their complexity or the antiquity of the Arabic language. The Quran is revealed in the old Arabic language and when it was revealed there were many proverbs and phrases that were spoken and understood then. But the modern Arabic language does not inherit the proverbs of the Arabic language and so today the translators translate the phrases of proverbs in literal language. Also there are many verses in the Quran that can be understood only when they are seen in their contemporary social milieu.

This is the reason why many verses have been mistranslated and misinterpreted sometimes having a direct bearing on the understanding of the basic tenets of Islam or Quran.  Among the verses is the verse on adultery. The verse in Surah Nur: 3 says:

Al Zani La Yankihu Illa Zaniatan Aw Mushrikatan Wa Al Zaniatu La Yankihuha Illa Zanin Aw Mushrikun,Wa Hurrema Zalika Ela Almuminin.

Abdulla Yusuf Ali translates it thus:

Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry but a woman similarly guilty, or an Unbeliever: nor let any but such a man or an Unbeliever marry such a woman: to the Believers such a thing is forbidden.

Marmeduke Pickthall translates it as:

The adulterer shall not marry save an adulteress or an idolatress, and the adulteress none shall marry save an adulterer or an idolater. All that is forbidden unto believers.

John Arberry translates it as:

The fornicator shall marry none but a fornicatress or an idolatress, and the fornicatress -- none shall marry her but a fornicator or an idolator; that is forbidden to the believers.

Hasan Qaribullah translates is as:

The fornicator shall marry none but a fornicatress or an idolatress; and the fornicatress none shall marry her but a fornicator or an idolater; that is forbidden to the believers.

The translations of this verse contradict other verses of the Quran on the same issue: adultery. Surah Al Baqarah: 221 says:

“Do not wed idolatresses, until they believe. A believing slave girl is better than a (free) idolatress, even if she pleases you. And do not wed idolaters, until they believe. A believing slave is better than a (free) idolater, even though he pleases you. Those call to the Fire; but Allah calls to Paradise and pardon by His permission. He makes plain His verses to the people, in order that they will remember.”

The Quran does not approve not to speak of ordain Muslims to marry Mushrikin (idolators or idolatresses) even if they commit the gravest sin. In Surah Al Baqarah the Quran clearly asks Muslims not to marry idolators or idolatresses and considers Muslim slaves or slave girls most appropriate to marry in comparison to idolators.  That’s why it can be assumed that the verse 24:3 does not mean what all the translators have implied. Muhammad Asad is cautious while translating this verse. He translates this verse in the following words:

“[Both are equally guilty:] the adulterer couples with none other than an adulteress - that is, a woman who accords [to her own lust] a place side by side with God; and with the adulteress couples none other than an adulterer - that is, a man who accords (to his own lust] a place side by side with God: and this is forbidden unto the believers.

While translating this verse Muhammad Asad had the verse of the Surah Baqarah in mind. That’s why he did not translate the verse in the way others did.

For adulterers or adulteress, the Quran prescribes the punishment of one hundred lashes and does not declare them unbelievers. And after undergoing punishment, the believers are understood to be purified of the sin on the earth. That’s why Muhammad Asad has explained the verse in the following words:

“The term Mushrik (fem. Mushrikah), which normally signifies a person who associates in his or her mind all manner of imaginary deities or forces with God, or who believes that any created being has a share in His qualities or powers, is here evidently used in the widest metaphorical sense   of this term, denoting one who accords to hi s or her desires a supremacy which is due to God alone, and thus blasphemes against the principles of ethics and morality enjoined by Him. The particle aw (lit., "or") which connects the word Mushrikah with the preceding word Zanjyah ("adulteress")   has in this context - as well as in the next clause, where both these terms appear in their   masculine form - an amplifying, explanatory value equivalent to the expression "in other words"  or "that is", similar to the use of this particle in 23:6. Some of the commentators understand this passage in the sense of an injunction: "The adulterer shall not marry any but an adulteress or a Mushrikah; and as for the adulteress; none shall marry her but an adulterer or a Mushrik." This interpretation is objectionable on several counts: firstly, the   Qur'an does not ever countenance the marriage of a believer, however great a sin he or she may have  committed, with an unbeliever (in the most pejorative sense of this term); secondly, it is a  fundamental principle of Islamic Law that once a crime has been expiated by the transgressor's  undergoing the ordained legal punishment (in this case, a hundred stripes), it must be regarded,  insofar as the society is concerned, as atoned for and done with; and, lastly, the construction   of the above passage is clearly that of a statement of fact (Razi), and cannot be interpreted as  an injunction. On the other hand, since adultery is an illicit sexual union, the verb Yankihu,   which appears twice in this passage, cannot have the customary, specific meaning of "he marries"  but must, rather, be understood in its general sense.” - Applicable to both lawful and unlawful sexual   intercourse - namely, "he couples with". It is in this sense that the great commentator Abu-Muslim  (as quoted by Razi) explains the above verse, which stresses the fact that both partners are equally  guilty in as much as they commit their sin consciously - implying that neither of them can excuse  himself or herself on the ground of having been merely "seduced".

Muhammad Asad took a different approach to translating the verse taking in mind the basic principles of the Quran and the verse of Surah Baqarah. The other translators did a literal translation not keeping in mind the contradictions their literal translations caused and the violation of the Quranic principle that Quran does not consider sinners of even major sins akin to non-believers or idolators.

There is another verse in the Quran that has been wrongly translated and misinterpreted so as to make adultery with female slaves permissible. The verse is;

Wal Lazina Hum Lifurujihm Hafizun (5) Illa Ala Azwajihim Aw Ma Malakat Aymanuhum Fainnahum Ghairu Malumin.(6) ( Al Muminun)

Hasan Qaribullah translates this verse in following words:

“who guard their privates, except with their wives and what their right hand possesses, and then they are not blamed.”

Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates the verse as:

“Who abstain from sex, Except with those joined to them in the marriage bond, or (the captives) whom their right hands possess, - for (in their case) they are free from blame”,

Habib Shakir translates this verse as:

“And who guard their private parts, Except before their mates or those whom their right hands possess, for they surely are not blameable”.

Muhammad Pickthall translates the verse as:

“And who guard their modesty - Save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy”,

The translations of the above verses create the impression that the slave girls are halal for believers without marriage. The slave girls are not mentioned as wives. “Whom their rights hands posses” has been assumed to be the slave girls. It may be that the slave girls were called “the property of the right hand” or “the possession of the right hand” in the Jahiliyyah period.  That’s why the translators have translated the phrase Malakat Aymanukum as “what their right hands possess” meaning slave girls. In other verse, the phrase “ma Malakat Aymanukum” is mentioned while discussing the women who are Haram for believers for marriage.  The married women who come into custody of Muslim men in certain situation like in the war are called Malakat Aymanukum (property of their right hand); implying that marriage with such women with Muslim men is permissible even if their husbands are alive. But it is not said in the verse that these captive women would become their wives without marriage.

“Lawful unto you are all beyond those mentioned, so that ye seek them with your wealth in honest wedlock, not debauchery.”(4:24)

In the same sense, the slave girls also need to be married to their masters or captors or other seekers to become Halal for them. The following verses make this clear:

“And who so is not able to afford to marry free, believing women let them marry from the believing maids whom your right hands possess.” (4:25). Since marrying believing women requires Muslims to pay Mehr, Muslim men could marry slave girls because Mehr was not mandated for them.

“so wed them by permission of their folk, and give unto them their portions in kindness, they being honest, not debauched nor of loose conduct.” (4:25)

If one wanted to marry the slave girl of another master he would have to marry her with the permission of her master. But marry he must. She would not be Halal to him without marriage as assumed by the translators. The verse may also mean that when the captor married his own female slave he would not have to pay the Mehr but if another person wanted to marry her with the permission of her master, he would have to pay Mehr to her because she is not female slave for the would be bride.

“And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) or (the captives) that your right hands possess. Thus it is more likely that ye will not do injustice.”(4:3)

In this verse too, Malakat Aymanukum means the ‘slave girls’ and that they can be married if one fears that he cannot keep two or three or four wives or even one wife for want of money.

Muhammad Asad again keeps other verses of the Quran in mind while translating this verse:

“[not giving way to their desires] with any but their spouses - that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock] -:for then, behold, they are free of all blame.”

From the above study it can be said that some verses have been translated and misinterpreted to the degree that they contradict the basic principles of the Quran.

There are similar instances of misinterpretation and flawed translations of the Quran both in Urdu and English translations and commentaries. We can imagine that these translations and commentaries of prominent Muslim scholars might have influenced the translators of other languages and similar errors might have crept in their translations promoting un-Islamic and wrong beliefs among the followers of Islam and presenting a wrong picture among the non-believing students of Islam.

Interestingly, writing commentary of the verse Al Nisa: 3, Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani writes:

“….that is marrying only one woman or being content with the female slave or marrying one woman and ‘gathering’ one or more female slaves with her may prevent you from doing injustice because the rights of the captive female slaves is not equal to the rights of the wives so that you will be held accountable for the injustice done to them because neither Mehr is for them nor other societal obligations.”

This commentary does not make it clear that the female slave would be acquired through wedlock as it uses the phrase (Jama Karna) ‘gather’ and the word ‘Nikah’ is used for marriage with free women. This leads to the assumption that Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani also believes that female slaves can be gathered or acquired without wedlock and that injustice can be done to them. What about the Hadith when the Prophet pbuh alighted from the camel and asked his slave to ride it for the equal distance because the prophet pbuh did not want to do injustice to his slave.

S. Arshad is a regular columnist for


New Age IslamIslam OnlineIslamic WebsiteAfrican Muslim NewsArab World NewsSouth Asia NewsIndian Muslim NewsWorld Muslim NewsWomen in IslamIslamic FeminismArab WomenWomen In ArabIslamophobia in AmericaMuslim Women in WestIslam Women and Feminism