Exactly five years ago, I engaged in a deep theological debate with Waqar Akbar Cheema on a mis-translation of a verse of the Quran 3:144. I am always very sensitive to scholars and writers not distinguishing between translation and commentary and doing nip, tuck and tweak with scripture in order to slowly guide their reader towards a pre-conceived point of view instead of a logical conclusion. While this deep-dive duel seemed unproductive at the time, it reinforced three points for me which have guided me ever since:
- Separate prima facie translation from commentary and opinion.
- Confront the facts just as you find them, and follow where the truth leads you.
- Diversity of opinion, within parameters, is strength and not a weakness.
While re-reading Brother Cheema's responses to my articles today, I will ignore the ad hominem attacks on my faith and quote from the Tafseer of Muhammad bin Salih bin Uthaymeen, a giant of the Salafi world and whose exegesis is only a few years old.
The Original Issue was Simple
Qur’an 3: 144 reads:
وَمَا مُحَمَّدٌ إِلَّا رَسُولٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِنْ قَبْلِهِ الرُّسُلُ أَفَإِنْ مَاتَ أَوْ قُتِلَ انْقَلَبْتُمْ عَلَى أَعْقَابِكُمْ
‘And Muhammad is but a messenger, there have been messengers before him. So, if he dies or is killed, would you turn back on your heels?’
I challenged that this was a non-standard translation, and Cheema said it was Taqi Usmani's English translation, which is not considered good at all. I presented the 6 well-known English translations including the Wahhabi Saudi-approved Sahih International:
As we have discussed before, one does not need to resort to mis-translating the Quran to prove one's point. While I respect others' opinion, Brother Waqar has . . . mistranslated of the Quran - which I have observed before in Brother's Waqar's work - slight 'tweaking' of English words -- this is not intellectual honesty. 'qad khalat' means exactly as 'passed away' when applied to humans. Here are ALL the translations of the verse from quran.com: (I hope that in order for me to keep an intellectual respect for his work, Brother Waqar would correct this or reference his translation).
MUHSIN KHAN: have passed away before him.
DR. GHALI: have already passed away before him.
SAHIH INTERNATIONAL: have passed on before him.
SHAKIR: have already passed away before him;
YUSUF ALI: that passed away before him.
PICKTHALL: have passed away before him.
Bewley and Abdul Haleem: translate the phrase as 'came and went'.
Now, Brother Cheema could have acknowledged and moved on and still proven his point that this verse is not definitive for all messengers. But he chose to dig in his heels and prove that Taqi Usmani's wrong translation of the idiom was right and all other translators are wrong. In doing so, he attacked my faith, but I took it as a sign of his weakness and I forgave him for the insult.
From the mistranslation, Brother Cheema tried to prove:
- . . . in the above verse the word (khalat) means death and he (Mirza) maintained that taking to mean otherwise was simply absurd. The fact of the matter, however, remains that his argument itself is totally absurd as it defies both the dictionary meaning and other usage of the word in the Holy Qur’an.
- It’s also wrong to say that when used for persons the word khala means death.
The word ‘khalat’ in Qur’an 3:144 does not mean death and merely refers to something having been in the past.
- . . . evidence for the Islamic belief and not that of the Ahmadiyya
After a fruitless attempt at private conversation, I replied: Tracking Waqar Akbar Cheema on ‘qad khalat’
Brother Cheema unfortunately accused me of defending Mirza while I was defending previous scholars and the Quran. For this I may not be able to forgive him.
I offered a compromise that at least some scholars have used that term, but the brothwer stuck to the wrong translation of Taqi Usmani. I then wrote two more : پانچ مفسرین نے ۳:۱۴۴ میں ‘قد خلت’ سے کیا سمجھا and The Great Dictionary Deception
Uthaymeen's Tafseer - Contemporary and Detailed
Uthaymeen has devoted many pages to 3:144 and he is a scholar whom Brother Cheema cannot disparage; although I don't hold Uthaymeen in high regard. It is clear like daylight that the meaning of 'qad khalat' is not controversial and it has no bearing on Jesus.
That is, the Messenger of Allah (saw) is a messenger before whom the messengers have passed away, so they died before him and among them are those that were killed as Allah says : "and [they] killed the prophets without right" (2:61). So when it was like that, did their nations, when their prophets died or were killed, abandoned their faiths? Answer: No, they did not abandon their faiths, and that is because these nations worshiped Allah ...
and followed their messengers, and the message of the messengers was not cut off by their death, but their message remained until another message came to abrogate it. Except that the message of the Prophet (saw) will not be abrogated as it is the last of the messages . . .
It is said "Muhammad is not but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him." When this is so, then did the messengers who preceded, and died or were killed -- did their nations turn their backs after them? No, but that the messages remained and the following remained . . .
[Among the fawaid is] (1) the declaration that the Messenger of Allah (saw) was a human whom death overcame as it overcame all the messengers. This is in His word: "Muhammad is not but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him. So if he was to die or be killed, ...? "
(3) . . . in His word "[Other] messengers have passed on before him." . . . previous messengers did not continue to exist -- they died or were killed . . . .
(4) An affirmation that Muhammad (saw) is the last of the messengers. In His word "[Other] messengers have passed on before him" the 'al' means everyone and he did not say 'messengers have passed away before him', but He said 'The messengers', and when it it was 'the messengers' -- all of them -- who passed away before him, it is compulsory then that He (Muhammad) should be the last of them.
I don't see any way out of this excellent exegesis by Uthaymeen, but I would really want to know if there is any way out. And I repeat, this established and idiomatic meaning has no bearing on Jesus, about whom Uthaymeen has explained excellently elsewhere.
Allah says, "O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah , witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do." (6:8)