Mistake or Blasphemy?
How one word can make a world of a difference ...
On the grammatical or syntactical level, this article will make observations on some Qur’an verses that are similar to those I have made in another article published quite some time ago,1 but the theological implications are far more severe at this time.
Let us consider this text from the Qur’an:
… “O 'Ibadi (My slaves) who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith (Islamic Monotheism) to your Lord and submit to Him, (in Islam), before the torment comes upon you, then you will not be helped.” S. 39:53-54 Al-Hilali & Khan
The Muslim scripture is brimming with threats of punishment for sins and transgressions against the laws of Allah, both punishment in this life and even more the horrible punishment in the fire of Hell. Somebody who is very conscious of his sins and shortcomings could easily despair that he is not able to fulfil the requirements of Allah and has no chance to go to Paradise.
The above passage has the purpose to inspire hope in Muslims that Allah is gracious and merciful, and, whatever their sins may have been, Allah is willing to forgive them (v. 53) when he sees genuine repentance and submission in the heart and life of a Muslim believer (v. 54). It is a message of consolation or comfort spoken by Allah and addressed to the believers, whom he calls “my slaves”.
Apart from the “minor” quibble that one statement in v. 53 stands in contradiction to some other passages in the Qur’an (cf. the article Does Allah Forgive All Sins or Doesn’t He?), there would not be much of a problem in this text as it is quoted above.
However, the three dots at the beginning indicate that the above given citation was not complete. Let’s now take a look at what this verse really says:
Say: “O 'Ibadi (My slaves) who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith (Islamic Monotheism) to your Lord and submit to Him, (in Islam), before the torment comes upon you, then you will not be helped.” S. 39:53-54 Al-Hilali & Khan
For whatever reason, the author(s) or editor(s) of the Qur’an decided to change the verse from a direct speech of Allah to a command to Muhammad to speak these words by putting the word “Qul” before it, i.e., “Say (O Muhammad, the following words)”.
Muhammad said and/or was supposed to say: “O My Slaves …” Here is the problem: Are Muslim believers the slaves of Muhammad? ‘Ibâd Muhammad? Many Muslims bear the name Abd-Allah (Slave of Allah). Certainly, it would be shirk to call anyone “Abd-Muhammad”?
Adding “Qul” before the statement in quotation marks means that the speaker now changes from Allah to Muhammad. Therefore, the statement necessarily needs to be adapted to read, for example:
Say: “O slaves of Allah (‘ibâd Allah) who have transgressed against themselves (by committing evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
But whoever made the decision to add “Qul” at the beginning of this verse forgot that with the change of the speaker the first person possessive pronoun needed to be changed to the name of Allah since otherwise the verse would turn into a blasphemous statement.
However, this was overlooked in the composition or editing process and now the Qur’an claims that Muhammad was commanded to address Muslims as “my slaves” instead of “Slaves of Allah”.
Just how strongly this formulation contradicts the central teaching of Islam, Tawhid, and what the Qur’an and hadith say in regard to the use of the words “slave” and “lord” is explained in Sam Shamoun’s companion article “How many Lords do Muslims really have?”
What are the implications of this observation? Basically, I see these alternatives:
A) The text as it stands is original, but the formulation was accidentally erroneous, i.e. we are looking at a human error. This constitutes evidence that the Qur’an comes from a human author since the omniscient and perfect God would not commit such an error. Thus, Muhammad designed the passage but he overlooked that he constructed this verse incorrectly.
B) The text, as it stands, is no longer original. The described problem arose through oversight by a sloppy editor. In other words, the text of the Qur’an has been changed; the Qur’an is corrupted.
C) The wording is intentional. The Qur’an really teaches the blasphemy that Muslims are the slaves of Muhammad. Many Muslim will be outraged at such a charge, but there is actually a considerable amount of evidence that the Qur’an elevates Muhammad to the level of deity in various ways (cf. the section on the Deification of Muhammad).
Is there any other alternative? As I see it, there is the dilemma that this verse is either accidentally erroneous (i.e. originating from a human author) or corrupted (through later tampering) or intentional and blasphemous (because it elevates Muhammad to a status that belongs only to God).2
But the trouble isn’t over yet. Shockingly, this very same error occurs not only once but at least twice!
In an earlier verse in the same chapter we find a similar formulation:
Say (O Muhammad SAW): “O My slaves who believe (in the Oneness of Allah Islamic Monotheism), be afraid of your Lord (Allah) and keep your duty to Him. Good is (the reward) for those who do good in this world, and Allah's earth is spacious (so if you cannot worship Allah at a place, then go to another)! Only those who are patient shall receive their rewards in full, without reckoning.” S. 39:10 Al-Hilali & Khan
Could it be that the translators Al-Hilali and Khan actually recognized the problem (and danger of potential misunderstanding) and therefore added the parenthesis “(Allah)” after “your Lord” in order to prevent the natural reading that “your Lord” refers back to the one who says “my slaves”, i.e. Muhammad?
Even if the translators had a different motivation, and even if the reader doesn’t want to accept that the natural reading of the text – without all the parenthetical remarks added by the translators – makes Muhammad “your Lord”, it still stands that Muhammad is commanded to address Muslims as “my slaves”. Adding the “Say:” in front of this verse is again very problematic, and everything that was outlined above in regard to S. 39:53 applies here as well.
It is instructive to compare the formulation in these two verses with those in S. 14:31 and 17:53 which are very similar but were done in a way which does not give rise to shirk:
Say (O Muhammad SAW) to 'Ibadi (My slaves) who have believed, that they should perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and spend in charity out of the sustenance We have given them, secretly and openly, before the coming of a Day on which there will be neither mutual bargaining nor befriending. S. 14:31 Al-Hilali & Khan
And say to My slaves (i.e. the true believers of Islamic Monotheism) that they should (only) say those words that are the best. (Because) Shaitan (Satan) verily, sows disagreements among them. Surely, Shaitan (Satan) is to man a plain enemy. S. 17:53 Al-Hilali & Khan
Here the author(s) or editor(s) of the Qur’an changed the structure of the sentence correctly by turning the direct speech into indirect speech. Instead of “Say: My slaves …” it is formulated as “Say to my slaves … that they should …”
Thus, the Arabic language clearly has the tools to express this correctly. It is not a lack of grammatical constructions, not a limitation on the Arabic language.
Note that two verses which are correct (14:31; 17:53)3 are not a cover or an excuse for the two that are clearly wrong (39:10,53). On the contrary, the correctly constructed verses expose just how horribly wrong S. 39:10 and 39:53 are.
Muslims who want to believe that the Qur’an is the pure and unadulterated word of a perfect God need to honestly grapple with such problems. What implications do these formulations have for their understanding of the Qur’an and ultimately for the veracity of Islam?