ALL, ALLer, ALLest, (Yusuf) Ali?

Surah An-Nahl (16:49-50)

16:   Pickthall Yusuf Ali Al-Hilali & Khan Muhammad Asad
49 And unto Allah maketh prostration whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth of living creatures, and the angels (also) and they are not proud. And to God doth obeisance all that is in the heavens and on earth, whether moving (living) creatures or the angels: for none are arrogant (before their Lord). And to Allah prostate all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, of the live moving creatures and the angels, and they are not proud [i.e. they worship their Lord (Allah) with humility]. For, before God prostrates itself all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth - every beast that moves, and the angels:56 [even] these do not bear themselves with false pride:
50 They fear their Lord above them, and do what they are bidden. They ALL revere their Lord, high above them, and they do all that they are commanded. They fear their Lord above them, and they do what they are commanded. they fear their Sustainer high above them, and do whatever they are bidden to do.57

First thoughts

Comparing the translations of Pickthall and Yusuf Ali, it seems that the latter got carried away a bit with his various insertions of the word "all". The additional all-capital-letters "ALL" causes a different meaning in the verse 50. The simple "they" found in Pickthall refers back to the angels which are the last group of beings mentioned in verse 49. By writing "They all", the subject in Yusuf Ali's version now includes all the creatures in heaven and earth that are mentioned in verse 49, not only the angels. Even though the second "all" that Yusuf Ali inserted into verse 50 does no harm, it is not found in the Arabic text either.

Second thoughts

However, comparing further with Al-Hilali & Khan and Muhammad Asad, including the footnotes supplied by the latter, these two seem to agree with the meaning conveyed by Yusuf Ali – but without inserting extra words.

The original Arabic text does not have commas. The English translators – by putting commas at different places – cause the verse to have a different meaning. Pickthall placed a comma after "creatures" and no comma after "angels". By writing "and the angels (also) and they are not proud", he makes the last phrase "and they are not proud" refer to the angels only, and in consequence all of verse 50 also refers to the angels only. Al-Hilali and Khan, on the other hand, group together "of the live moving creatures and the angels" and then the phrase "and they are not proud" refers to both of these groups. Muhammad Asad communicates the same meaning, though by different means. These are Muhammad Asad's explanatory footnotes:

56  I.e., the lowest as well as the highest. The term dabbah denotes any sentient, corporeal being capable of spontaneous movement, and is contrasted here with the non-corporeal, spiritual beings designated as "angels" (Razi).

57  I.e., they must, by virtue of their nature, obey the impulses implanted in them by God and are, therefore, incapable of what is described as "sinning". Man, however, is fundamentally different in this respect. In contrast with the natural sinlessness of "every beast that moves, and the angels", man is endowed with free will in the moral sense of this term: he can choose between right and wrong – and therefore he can, and often does, sin. But even while he sins he is subject to the universal law of cause and effect instituted by God and referred to in the Qur'an as sunnat Allah ("God's way"): hence the Qur'anic statement that "before God prostrate themselves, willingly or unwillingly, all [things and beings] that are in the heavens and on earth" (13: 15). (underline emphasis mine)

These observations and comments resulted in my rethinking of the verse. How should it be understood? What did the author of the Qur'an want to say? Are there any structural clues that point to the correct grouping of phrases?


The most important observation is that the author employed the literary device of a chiastic (x-shaped) structure, i.e. the parts of a sentence form the relationship: A B B A. More precisely, we have these three parts: P = prostration, H = what is in the heavens, E = what is in the earth. The chiasmus H E E H is framed by the initial statement of the prostration and then an explanation of what prostration means or entails. Thus the passage is structured as P H E E H P:1

    P :  And to Allah prostate 

H & E :                       all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth,
                                                       \     /
  X                                                       X
                                                       /     \
E & H :                     of the live moving creatures and the angels, 

    P :  and they are not proud.
         They fear their Lord above them, and they do what they are commanded.

The physical act of prostration is the outward gesture. For a prostration to be genuine, it needs to be accompanied by humility (not being proud), fear of the Lord, and willing obedience to his commands. That is the inner reality of which prostration is merely an outer reflection. The two green parts (P) belong together. The second part explains the first.

When we recognize the artistic literary structure of the passage, it becomes obvious that the last part of P describes the prostration of all the subjects which have been mentioned in verse 49. The statement about the humility and obedience refers not only to the angels but has to be understood also as a description of the living creatures.

Therefore, I conclude that Al-Hilali & Khan and Muhammad Asad have captured the meaning of the verse better than Pickthall; and so did Yusuf Ali, despite the fact that he added some words that are not found in the Arabic text.

Further questions

How should we understand the line "of the live moving creatures and the angels"? It is a specification of "all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth", but should it be interpreted in the sense of a restriction or in the sense of giving an example for the sake of illustration?

Restriction would mean (reformulated and regrouped for clarification): And to Allah prostate all that is in the heavens of the angels (but not any other beings in heaven), and all that is in the earth of the live moving creatures (but not any other beings on earth), i.e. to Allah prostate of all those in the heavens only the angels, and of all those in the earth only the live moving creatures.

The readers will certainly agree that such an interpretation would make a mockery of the first line that formulates comprehensively and majesticly: "And to Allah prostate all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth." A restrictive interpretation does not fit the flow.

Thus, the phrase following it is not meant as restriction but as illustration, i.e. giving an example without excluding other beings. It should be interpreted as: And to Allah prostate all that is in the heavens — for example the angels — and all that is in the earth — for example the live moving creatures — and they are not proud. ...

That only the latter interpretation is possible can also be seen when looking at a similar verse, S. 22:18 (as rendered by Al-Hilali & Khan):

See you not that to Allah prostrates 
            whoever is in the heavens             and whoever is on the earth, 
        and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the mountains, and the trees, and Ad-Dawab (moving living creatures, beasts, etc.), ...

In this case, the verse is not composed in a chiastic structure but in a parallel one (H E H E), mentioning first the general category heavens, then the general category earth, and in the next line the specific examples that are given for illustration come in the same order.

Because various entities/beings are mentioned in S. 22:18 as prostrating to Allah which are not mentioned in S. 16:49, and vice versa, therefore neither of these statements can be interpreted as restrictive; both must be illustrative. Otherwise the two verses would contradict. Moreover, it should be obvious that by mentioning the trees the author did not want to communicate that among all plants only trees are prostrating, i.e. the bushes and the various kinds of herbs are refusing to prostrate to Allah. Such an interpretation would be ludicrous. The named entities are only examples for illustration and represent all of creation.

However, returning back to our passage in question, there is a serious problem with S. 16:49-50. The author managed to employ a fine literary style, but got his message wrong. These verses are good poetry, but bad theology. And this problem remains even if we abandon the chiastic understanding and stick with Pickthall's linear reading. Why this constitutes a wrong statement, is discussed in the article, Are they all obedient and prostrating to Allah?

Jochen Katz


1. Instead of calling it a frame, one could even see this as constituting a double chiasmus, or a cascading chiasmus. The part "P" makes a statement about what is done, and the blocks "H E" and "E H" state who is doing it. Thus, we have the chiasmus "what who who what". The first two parts are general and the second two parts are specific, i.e.

What :  prostration                           (general statement) 
Who  :  all in heavens and all in earth       (general statement) 
Who  :  living creatures and angels           (specific statement, illustrating the general who-statement)
What :  humility, fear of the Lord, obdience  (specific statement, illustrating the general what-statement)

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