New Book: Les emprunts à l’hébreu et au judéo-araméen dans le Coran

by Catherine Pennacchio*

My new book, Les emprunts à lhébreu et au judéo-araméen dans le Coran, builds on Arthur Jeffery’s work, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an (Baroda, 1938), the last major study of Qur’anic loanwords. This lexicon identifies 325 loanwords and gathers all that had been written by Muslim and Western scholars about them. My book addresses the need pennachio_emprunts_rectofor this earlier work to be revised, updated, and supplemented. Progress made in comparative linguistics and the discovery of thousands of inscriptions in the Arabian Peninsula invite us to reconsider Qur’anic loanwords in their linguistic and historical contexts. This new publication examines 189 loanwords from Hebrew and Aramaic, checking the status of these terms and scrutinizing arguments about them, starting from Jeffery’s work.

First, Les emprunts provides some definitions and typologies of loanwords, and describes previous works about lexical borrowings by both Muslim and Western scholars. Then, it classifies loanwords into two main classes: loans prior to Islam and loans related to the message of Islam. The loans before Islam, coming from Akkadian, Aramaic, Persian, Greek, and Latin, reflect the historical, political, and trade contacts of the Arab tribes with their neighbors. These loans are common words that seem to have been imported with the concept or object that they denote (e.g. furāt, tijāra, rummān). The loans related to the message of Islam correspond to religious technical terms. Those borrowed from Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic seem to come from direct contacts of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions with Hijazi Jews (e.g. muʾtafika, rāʿinā), from the Hebrew Bible (e.g. asbāṭ, baʿīr), or from rabbinical scriptures (e.g. jubb, darasa). Some were also known in Arabia long before Islam (e.g. ʿabd, khātam, raḥmān, zakāt). I also added to Jeffery’s list loans that are already known (e.g. ummī, ḥajj, sabʿ, miḥrāb) and a completely new one that I discovered (jalāʾ in Q 59:3).

The identification of a loanword comes from an intuition, a feeling that a word calls to mind another culture. The uncertainty of the meaning and the form allows us to say that it is probably a loanword. For borrowings external to Semitic languages, their morphology enables us to identify them. It is easy when such loanwords display characteristics typical of the original non-Semitic language (such as firdaws and majūs). It is more difficult for loanwords belonging to the Semitic language family. The difficulty is to distinguish those roots that are common throughout the Semitic family tree from roots that are actually loans from one branch of the family tree to another. As a rule, a term is considered common if it is represented with the same phonetic and semantic values in the majority of the Semitic family. But some loans also have these characteristics (e.g. miskīn, sikkīn, safīna).

The next step is to determine the origin of a loanword. Religious words are often considered as borrowings to Hebrew or Syriac because Judaism and Christianity often use the same concepts and texts, and because Hebrew, Judeo-Aramaic, and Syriac are very similar. I relied on grammar, rules of comparative linguistics, and contexts to trace the history of these loans. I looked for the key that reveals the loan and its origin, a detail that can be a linguistic feature (as in the cases of kursī, zujāja, and qaṭirān), or the words themselves, as those who are definitely Jewish could be sufficient to prove a Jewish origin (such as sabt and minhaj). Some previous errors in loan attribution have been detected, and the number of loans has been lowered: some are in fact common to the Semitic languages (e.g. ḥabl, ʿankabūt), while others are properly developments within the Arabic language itself (e.g. maʿīn, kāhin).

* Pennacchio is a participant in the Glossarium Coranicum Project revising Arthur Jeffery’s The Foreign Vocabulary Of The Qur’an. This project is coordinated by the CNRS (UMR 8167 – Orient et Méditerranée) and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. She also participates in the ETYMARAB project about an etymological dictionary of the Arabic language, and will soon release software about the vocabulary of the Qur’an.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

On the Qur’an and Modern Standard Arabic

by Gabriel Said Reynolds*

Moses Set Out on the Nile in a Reed Basket. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, ca. 1775; photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Moses Set Out on the Nile in a Reed Basket. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, ca. 1775; photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Qurʾan 20:39 recalls how God instructed Moses’ mother to place her infant son in a tābūt and set him upon a river, that he might escape Pharaoh. In Modern Standard Arabic, tābūt can mean “box, case, chest, coffer” or “casket, coffin, sarcophagus,” and many translators render tābūt in the Qur’an in light of one or another of these meanings. Asad (“chest”), Hilali-Khan (“a box or a case or a chest”), Yusuf Ali (“chest”), Hamidullah (“coffret”), and Paret (“Kasten”) all choose the first meaning; Quli Qaraʾi (“casket”) chooses the second.

The awkward image of the infant Moses floating on the Nile in a casket illustrates the problem of understanding Qurʾanic terms in light of their meanings in Modern Standard Arabic. Not all translators do so. Pickthall and Arberry, among others, render tābūt, “ark.” This dramatically different translation presumably reflects the influence of Qurʾan 2:248, where the Qurʾan uses tābūt for the Ark of the Covenant.

In fact, Q 2:248 is the key to understanding tābūt in Q 20:39. Tābūt reflects the Hebrew term tebā (itself a borrowing from Egyptian), the term used for the basket in which Moses’ mother places him (Exodus 2:3; tebā evidently means “basket” here because it is made Q2out of reeds). Tebā is also used for the ark that Noah builds (Genesis 6:14, 15, passim). As Arthur Jeffery (Foreign Vocabulary, 88-89) notes, Qurʾanic tābūt is closer in form to Aramaic tībū (used in Targum Onkelos for both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket) and even more so to Ethiopic tābot. The connection with Ethiopic tābot might be particularly important since it (like Syriac qebūtā) is used for Noah’s ark, Moses’ basket, and the Ark of the Covenant.

In any case, my point here is not to make an argument about a particular etymology for tābūt but rather to illustrate the danger of relying on Modern Standard Arabic in our reading of the Qurʾan. The way in which the Qurʾan uses tābūt for both Moses’ basket (Q 20:39) and the Ark of the Covenant (Q 2:248) reflects the Biblical background of this term. Therefore, in Qurʾan 20:39, tābūt might be understood in light of this background to mean simply “basket” (even if this meaning is not found in Hans Wehr’s dictionary).

Tābūt is not the only example of the problem of Modern Standard Arabic understandings of the Qurʾan. Qur’an 3:44 alludes to the account of the contest between the widowers of Israel over Mary. In the version of this account in the (2nd century) Protoevangelium of James, all of the widows hand their staffs (as lots) to the priest Zechariah, in whose care Mary has been kept in the Jerusalem Temple. From the last staff, that of Joseph, a dove emerges, indicating that he is God’s choice. The term that the Qurʾan uses for these staffs is qalam (pl. aqlām), from Greek kalamos (“reed”). Yet qalam also came to mean “pen,” and indeed this is its common meaning in Modern Standard Arabic. Thus if one reads the Qurʾan in light of Modern Standard Arabic, Q 3:44 would seem to involve throwing pens around.

A final case, the term dīn, has theological consequences. As Mun’im Sirry points out in his recent work Scriptural Polemics: The Qurʾan and Other Religions (esp. 66-89), many modern commentators understand Qurʾanic occurrences of dīn to denote “religion,” and indeed translators almost always render dīn “religion” (for Q 3:19 I did not find any cases where it is translated otherwise). This has important consequences, especially with verses such as Q 3:19 and 85, which can be read to mean that Islam is the only acceptable religion. Yet in light of Semitic and non-Semitic cognates (such as Syriac dīnā), Qurʾanic dīn might have—in some instances at least—a more general meaning of “judgment” (hence the phrase yawm al-dīn). In other instances, dīn might mean something closer to religious disposition, rather than religion in the modern sense of a communal system of faith and worship. Accordingly, students of the Qurʾan should be wary of reading dīn, or any Qurʾanic term, through the lens of Modern Standard Arabic.

* Gabriel Said Reynolds researches the Qur’an and Muslim/Christian relations and is Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

Divergence in Qur’an Translations: Causes and Examples

By Sohaib Saeed*



The translation of the Arabic Qur’an into the languages of the world has received the broad acceptance of Muslim scholars since the middle of last century, though the practice of translating the whole Qur’an extends back to the sixteenth century or earlier. The original missionary goals were replaced by those of academic research, as well as Muslim efforts to clarify the teachings of their faith not only for non-Muslims but also for new generations of foreign believers. Translation is a particular method of explaining the Qur’anic text and can serve as a succinct way of expressing the meanings of its words and sentences.

Many Muslims make a fundamental distinction between the Qur’an—revealed verbatim in Arabic as a divine challenge—and its translations, understood as human renderings of its meaning into other languages. Any product of the human mind is subject not only to the possibility of error but also to the capacity for difference of opinion. Translation of any complex and highly literary text is necessarily a difficult task, and one in which expert opinions can diverge at various points.

After recognising the particularities of interpreting and translating a sacred text (too many to expand on here), the role of choice in the work of a translator is a reality that must also be appreciated. The translator may have to select exactly which text to translate (in this case, between the canonical readings, qirā’āt). On the level of vocabulary, a single word may have multiple meanings, more than one of which may be possible in a particular context. Indeed, it is possible that both meanings are intended, but that no single word in the target language will carry them both. There is also the challenge of observing the subtle distinctions between near-synonyms, e.g. the various words conveying senses of “fear,” even in a single verse.[1]

Then, on the phrasal and sentence level, the translator must decide which grammatical interpretation (iʿrāb) to follow. While the recent Qur’anic Corpus project is performing a valuable service in presenting the concept of grammatical parsing more widely, what may not be obvious from this project is the scope for diversity of opinion on this matter, as can be readily seen by consulting the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr. Similarly, the translator needs to decide on the referents of pronouns when they are ambiguous (e.g. between “he”, “He” and “it”), and how to incorporate punctuation such as sentence divisions and speech marks. After all this come the stylistic choices, such as how to render idioms and how the text will best flow in the target language.

Accordingly, we can compare between existing translations of the Qur’an to find that the differences between them fall within the following categories:

  • Vocabulary: lexical meanings and subtle distinctions
  • Grammar and sentence structure
  • Pronouns etc.
  • Stylistic choices
  • Multiple readings (qirā’āt) – rarely [2]

What follows is an analysis of a selection of translations of some verses (or parts of verses, as relevant) from the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah, in order to apply the above theory and discover the basis of difference between them. The method is to group the translations that are substantially identical (i.e. in all but style), and then identify the cause of divergence wherever it exists. It should be emphasized that this analysis will not indicate all the translations that could exist, because it is applied to a finite group (namely, those currently available on; moreover, it is possible that translators tended to see things the same way, or indeed were influenced by each other. Indeed, there might be more diversity if they were to rely more pronouncedly on the books of iʿrāb and tafsīr, which present obscure interpretations alongside the more obvious.[3]

As such, what follows is designed to illustrate choice and divergence in translation and enable the reader to appreciate what is involved in the task. It is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment, but contains hints for further study. A subsequent project may be to do the same for the rest of the Qur’an, as well as to look at a greater number of actual translations, and indeed possible translations that were not selected by anyone before. It should also be noted that it is outside our present scope to discuss whether some mistakes were made by the translators, or which of their approaches is best in each case.

Translation Study
(Surat al-Baqarah 2:1-20)

2:2       ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ

Sahih International: This is the Book

Muhsin Khan: This is the Book

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book

Pickthall: This is the Scripture

Ghali: That is the Book

Shakir: This Book

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render literally the demonstrative pronoun usually reserved for distant things (“that”) or consider the distance here as indicating greatness of “this” book.
  • Whether to interpret the two words as being a complete nominal sentence (thus with “is”), or together as the subject (“This book”) which is then followed by the predicate.
  • Choice between general “book” and the more contextual “scripture.”

2:2       لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ

Sahih International: about which there is no doubt

Ghali: there is no suspicion about it

Muhsin Khan: whereof there is no doubt

Pickthall: whereof there is no doubt

Shakir: there is no doubt in it

Yusuf Ali: This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt

Causes of divergence:

  • Whether to render it literally as “in” or understand it as “about”/“whereof.”
  • Different sentence structures depending on stopping place. Yusuf Ali’s rendering depends on reading it as ذَٰلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ followed by فِيهِ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِين—resulting in the Book containing guidance, rather than being guidance. He has adjusted the phrasal order for flow in English.

2:2       هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ

Yusuf Ali: in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah

Sahih International: a guidance for those conscious of Allah

Ghali: a guidance to the pious

Pickthall: a guidance unto those who ward off (evil)

Shakir: a guide to those who guard (against evil)

Muhsin Khan: a guidance to those who are Al-Muttaqun

Causes of divergence:

  • Different approaches to rendering the concept of taqwā, including the strategy of retaining the Arabic term.
  • The literal “guidance” (verbal noun) or a more contextual “guide” (active participle).
  • The different sentence structure used by Yusuf Ali, as explained previously.

2:3       الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلاةَ

Sahih International: Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer…

Pickthall: Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship…

Yusuf Ali: Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer…

Shakir: Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer…

Ghali: Who believe in the Unseen, and keep up the prayer…

Muhsin Khan: Who believe in the Ghaib and perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat)…

Cause of divergence:

  • Rendering certain Arabic terms as they are. As this is a regular occurrence in Muhsin. Khan’s translation (as well as its excessive glosses), it will not be mentioned further.

2:5       أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَىٰ هُدًى مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ

Sahih International: Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord

Muhsin Khan: They are on (true) guidance from their Lord

Yusuf Ali: They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord

Ghali: Those are upon guidance from their Lord

Shakir: These are on a right course from their Lord

Pickthall: These depend on guidance from their Lord

Causes of divergence:

  • Renderings of the word hudā, with Shakir perhaps being influenced by its being indefinite here.
  • Interpretations of the metaphor of being “upon” guidance. Pickthall has apparently understood that a word was left unmentioned; perhaps this ought to have been placed in parenthesis.

2:5       وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: and it is those who are the successful

Muhsin Khan: and they are the successful

Pickthall: These are the successful

Ghali: and those are they who are the prosperers

Yusuf Ali: and it is these who will prosper

Shakir: and these it is that shall be successful

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the active participle as indicating the present or the future.

2:6       لا يُؤْمِنُونَ

Sahih International: they will not believe

Muhsin Khan: they will not believe

Yusuf Ali: they will not believe

Shakir: …will not believe

Pickthall: they believe not

Ghali: they do not believe

Cause of divergence:

  • Reading the imperfect verb as indicating the present or the future.

2:8       وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَقُولُ آمَنَّا بِاللهِ وَبِالْيَوْمِ الآخِرِ

Sahih International: And of the people are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Yusuf Ali: Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Shakir: And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the last day

Muhsin Khan: And of mankind, there are some (hypocrites) who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”

Pickthall: And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day

Ghali: And of mankind (there) are some who say, “We have believed in Allah and in the Last Day”

Cause of divergence:

  • Whether to consider al-nās as referring to a specific number of people, or all mankind. This distinction is significant in certain other verses.
  • Here and elsewhere: approaches to the past-tense verb “believed,” often rendered in the present to suit the meaning.

2:10     وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْذِبُونَ

Sahih International: and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie

Muhsin Khan: A painful torment is theirs because they used to tell lies

Pickthall: A painful doom is theirs because they lie

Shakir: and they shall have a painful chastisement because they lied

Ghali: and for them is a painful torment for (that) they used to lie

Yusuf Ali: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves)

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb to apply to the act of lying, or as a mode of behaviour which is the opposite of being true (i.e. sincere).

2:11     قَالُوا إِنَّمَا نَحْنُ مُصْلِحُونَ

Sahih International: they say, “We are but reformers”

Muhsin Khan: they say: “We are only peacemakers”

Pickthall: they say: We are peacemakers only

Yusuf Ali: they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”

Shakir: they say: We are but peace-makers

Ghali: they say, “Surely we are only doers of righteousness” (i.e. reformers, peacemakers)

Cause of divergence:

  • Meanings of the term iṣlāḥ

2:12     أَلا إِنَّهُمْ هُمُ الْمُفْسِدُونَ وَلَٰكِن لا يَشْعُرُونَ

Sahih International: Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not

Muhsin Khan: Verily! They are the ones who make mischief, but they perceive not

Yusuf Ali: Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not

Shakir: Now surely they themselves are the mischief makers, but they do not perceive

Ghali: Verily, they, (only) they, are surely the corruptors, but they are not aware

Pickthall: Are not they indeed the mischief-makers? But they perceive not

Cause of divergence:

  •  Interpretation of the opening particle as being interrogative (its origin), rather than emphatic. Similarly in the following verse: “Are not they indeed the foolish?”

2:15     اللَّهُ يَسْتَهْزِئُ بِهِمْ

Sahih International: [But] Allah mocks them…

Muhsin Khan: Allah mocks at them…

Pickthall: Allah (Himself) doth mock them…

Ghali: Allah mocks them…

Shakir: Allah shall pay them back their mockery…

Yusuf Ali: Allah will throw back their mockery on them…

Cause of divergence:

  • Taking the verb as being a direct action in the present, or as an expression of the punishment which God will enact on the hypocrites, described with a verb that matches their wicked behaviour to indicate that the punishment will fit the crime in perfect justice and wisdom.

2:17     وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ

Sahih International: and left them in darkness [so] they could not see

Muhsin Khan: and left them in darkness. (So) they could not see

Pickthall: and leaveth them in darkness, where they cannot see

Yusuf Ali: and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see

Shakir: and left them in utter darkness– they do not see

Ghali: and left them in darkness(es) (where) they do not behold (anything)

Cause of divergence:

  • The plural form of “darkness” being ignored, treated as an emphasis (“utter”) or rendered literally (“darknesses”) as a new coinage in English.

2:19     أَوْ كَصَيِّبٍ مِّنَ السَّمَاءِ

Sahih International: Or [it is] like a rainstorm from the sky

Muhsin Khan: Or like a rainstorm from the sky

Pickthall: Or like a rainstorm from the sky

Yusuf Ali: Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky

Ghali: Or as a cloudburst from the heaven

Shakir: Or like abundant rain from the cloud

Cause of divergence:

  • How they understood these two terms and their meanings and relation in the context.

2:20     وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللهُ لَذَهَبَ بِسَمْعِهِمْ وَأَبْصَارِهِمْ

Sahih International: And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their

Muhsin Khan: And if Allah willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight

Pickthall: If Allah willed, He could destroy their hearing and their sight

Yusuf Ali: And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing

Shakir: and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have taken away their hearing and their sight

Ghali: and if Allah had so decided, He would indeed have gone away with (i.e., taken away) their hearing and their beholdings (Literally: eyesights)

Causes of divergence:

  • The latter translator’s understanding of the literal meaning of the transitive construction dhahaba bihi.
  • His attempt to convey the plural nature of abṣār, because the word for hearing (samʿ) occurs in the singular.

To be continued

[1] See Q 4:9. This example is interesting, because the generally precise translators of Saheeh International have simply written “fear” three times. Yusuf Ali and Muhsin Khan have even combined the first two and called them “the same fear”! Dr. M.M. Ghali (who pays particular attention to synonymy) has perhaps done the best job of distinguishing between their senses in the verse; likewise Pickthall.

[2] The vast majority of translators have relied solely on the reading of Ḥafṣ ʿan ʿĀṣim, being the preponderant narration throughout the Muslim world since the era of publishing and indeed earlier. However, ten canonical readings (qirā’āt) are recognised as being equally authentic and authoritative. While most differences between them pertain to pronunciation only, some affect meaning and thus translation. The Bewley translation (1999) is based on the reading of Warsh ʿan Nāfiʿ. In addition, there are instances where translators deviate from the reading of Ḥafṣ, whether knowingly or unwittingly. These issues will receive a detailed treatment in the future.

[3] The books of tafsīr also contain divergence based on their stances concerning certain creedal and juristic matters, and so on. It is unclear to what extent many translators have relied on works of tafsīr to develop their interpretations; one could imagine that a linguistic treatment would be enough. We know that some, such as Muhsin Khan, make explicit reference to works of tafsīr; such can be seen in Yusuf Ali’s footnotes too. Unfortunately, most translators make little to no use of footnotes, and those who do write footnotes tend not to use them to explain their choices in translation.

Sohaib Saeed is presently pursuing a degree in Qur’anic Studies at the Faculty of Theology (Usul al-Din) of the world-renowned Al-Azhar University, Egypt, after attaining degrees in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh.

*This blog post is a slightly revised version of Sohaib Saeed’s essay from the website, which he manages.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.