The Once and Future Hermeneutic – Part I 

In the Name of Allah Most Merciful and Compassionate

Praise to Allah Most High, who inspired His slave Muhammad the Quran and Wisdom, as a mercy unto the worlds. Allah bless him and give him peace. This is the tale of a translation, related because the Arabic text is the Quran that shall endure as long as Allah wills, while translations are ephemera that can only last until readers’ language changes beyond understanding what they disclose, necessitating a new interpretive effort. Tomorrow’s translators and others interested in how and why the English in this work differs from previous renderings can read on, while everyone else may simply turn to the first page of the Quran below and begin.

The translator’s first encounter with giving texts their critical due was at the University of Chicago under the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He exposited readings from Hegel and later Mannheim, giving painstaking attention to key details, historical and recent attempts to place them in the context of the larger thought of each, and the implications they held for a greater understanding of Man through his language and meaning.

The next time the translator saw anything of comparable depth was a decade later in Damascus, where a traditional scholar at his home would devote up to an hour and a half per page in a single lesson teaching the magnum opus of the sapiential theosophy of Hatimi. The readings were by a man who had never entered any school or academy except as a teacher. The meanings, their relation to the book as a whole, and even the syntax itself were often baffling, and university professors would come week after week to hear the difficulties overcome. He himself had read the book with a living master for decades, through whom he had acquired a hermeneutic, or authoritative mode of proceeding through the text to uncover its intent. It meant, as with Ricoeur, belonging to a larger interpretative community.

The last was the scholar who collaborated with the translator on the present volume in Amman. A man who memorized the Quran by heart in its ten canonical recitations, his connection with its community of interpretation began with a degree in Quranic exegesis from the University of Jordan, and continued with three more years in Yemen, a year and a half on his own with sheikhs in San‘a in north Yemen, then another year and a half in the halaqat or ‘circles’ of the Ribat at Tarim, Hadramawt, in south Yemen. The translator found he exemplified the received wisdom in lands of the Quran that the task of understanding it requires tafsir or ‘uncovering’ of the Arabic text, the privilege of those who truly know the Quran—described by Allah as “A momentous Book whose verses have been clearly expounded, a pure Arabic Quran, for a people who truly know” (41.3).

What do they know? For one thing, the Arabic language. Not merely as it is written and spoken today, but the words of its lexicon with their original meanings, cognates, tone, nuances, and distribution, and how they interact with various prepositions and other particles; then its grammar; then the shades of meaning implied by the various tenses and moods of its verbs; the rhetorical force of the several plurals of various nouns, in paucity, plenitude, and other implications; its rhetoric, with its many emphatics (ta’kidat) found both in the syntax, and through the range of semantic meaning, morphology, and sound—and much more, both in the ancient language itself and above and beyond it, as for example needed historical details about the revelation. Most of these were second nature to the first hearers, imbibed with their mothers’ milk as it were, or lived out—while mastery of these things today requires a native or near-native fluency in literary Arabic, indomitable energy, perseverance, hundreds if not thousands of hours of reading, a working familiarity with the corpus of both general and specialized standard exegetical reference works—to say nothing of, but especially in the case of the Quran, leave of its Author. The translator believes such knowledge is unlikely to be found in a single individual also endowed with an English aesthetic that might convey it, and that for one person to try is to underjudge the job.

For this reason, the meanings of this Book were taught to the translator by the traditional method of talaqqi or ‘personal word-by-word instruction’ by Sheikh ‘Ali Hani Yusuf, a scholar trained in Quranic exegesis and the lexicology, grammar, rhetoric, and other sciences of Arabic just mentioned. The translator found him an excellent philologist, who could spend days researching the inflection of a single word to answer a question. To impart the understanding the translator has tried to convey in this volume, the two went over every word, letter, preposition, inflection, and case-ending in the Quran from beginning to end for seven years, the sheikh teaching on his low table of open books, and the student writing the translation in pencil in tiny letters in the margin of his Quran, asking questions about possible ambiguities or misunderstandings, then later typing and polishing up the text. They gave preference, among viable nuances and meanings of the text in places that bear more than one, to the most convincing positions of its greatest Imams, whose works they compared and discussed in some detail for many a verse: Tabari, Zamakhshari, Abu Su‘ud, Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Raghib al-Asfahani, Biqa‘i, Razi, Alusi, al-Samin al-Halabi, Baydawi, Qunawi, Ibn Kathir, Abu Hayyan, Sheikh Zadah, Ibn al-Munayyir, Suyuti Wahidi, Qurtubi, Zajjaj, and others familiar to those who know the literature, or would care to peruse the biographical notes appended immediately after the main body of the translation.

When they finished, the translator saw that his acquired facility and Sheikh ‘Ali’s knowledge and skill had increased to the point that repeating the whole procedure might well improve the result. This was effected in another eight years. Sheikh ‘Ali worked full-time, as before, in preparation and research without his previous notes. His thirst for exhaustive detail, tenacity for the research required, and even the tone of his delivery of the text and commentary, evoked in the translator something of what it evoked in him, and materially helped. The translator retranslated from scratch everything he heard a second time on the other margin of his Quran’s pages. The translator made audio recordings of nearly every lesson with the sheikh over the fifteen years, which covered one page at a time, as well as many of the follow-up questions finalized in subsequent lessons. During the period of the final revision, the translator’s wife Umm Sahl re-listened to the recorded sessions of the second round as she had to the first, checking the English text word for word and giving corrections and advice, with the translator returning to Sheikh ‘Ali for further research on points requiring it.

For the sake of thoroughness she returned to six previous translations—something the translator had purposely abstained from during the whole period of his own work to keep it free of ‘received English renderings’—three for the beauty of their English, and three for comprehension of the meaning from Arabic, but she found little to take from them, and that all six had missed a number of key areas of the Arabic essential to its meaning, most of them falling in the traditional curriculum of Quranic Arabic under the heading of balagha or ‘rhetoric,’ which Sheikh ‘Ali had been accustomed to point out to the translator in virtually every verse. That is, the difference in the translator’s hermeneutic, by talaqqi or ‘personal instruction, questions, and answers,’ led to substantive differences from previous translations on many verses. These differences on questions of meaning do not arise from rarities, but from ubiquitous features found throughout the Quran, the very warp and woof of its mighty language, as shown by the number of times, cited below, that they appear in its text.

Now, the six translations chosen had been among the best, but wanting to know how general such gaps in meaning were in previous translations of the Quran, the translator contacted professor of Islamic studies and history Ahmad Khan at the American University in Cairo. He was preparing an article for journal publication covering the whole sweep of previous English translations, from George Sale’s in 1734 through the end of 2021, and had acquired copies of all of them from various lands, numbering some 129 works, excluding only partial translations, and translations from languages other than Arabic, such as Urdu to English. The translator told him of the number of crucial areas of meaning missed by all six major translations his wife had examined. He replied that these, and likely more, were absent from the entire collection of previous translations his article would cover. If true, this means the present volume’s interpretive methodology has uncovered matters of Arabic meaning in the Quran that no previous English translation has seriously incorporated. We now turn to a number of the most significant to show their importance in understanding the original text.


The first is the conjunctive adverb thumma, which invariably appears in past translations as and or then, indicating the simple succession in time between what it conjoins, or the lengthiness of the disparity between their respective times. Now traditional scholars of the Quran, including those we have mentioned above, identify a number of different meanings for thumma, such as:

  1. Disparity in time (tarakhi Zamani), as in the verse “Whoever commits an ill-deed or wrongs himself, then even at length (thumma) asks forgiveness of Allah while there is still time, shall find Allah all-forgiving, all-compassionate” (4.110).
  2. Disparity in time to express perpetuity (tarakhi zamani li l-dawam), as in “Verily those who say, ‘Our Lord is Allah,’ then follow ever after but the right, need never be feared for, nor shall they grieve” (46.13). Or “Say, ‘Journey in the earth, and however long you take, just look how was the end of those who cried lies’” (6.11). Or the verse “Those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah, never again after to remind those given of it, or offend them, they shall have their wage with their Lord . . .” (2.262).
  3. Disparity in rank (tarakhi rutbi), as in “So woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and yet more outrageous in enormity (thumma), say over and over: ‘This is from Allah Himself,’ to buy a paltry price thereby” (2.79). Here, much of the point of the verse is lost if one does not realize the disparity in rank between the two crimes. Or the verse “Then even above and beyond these primordial laws (thumma), did We vouchsafe Moses the Book: to perfect all blessings upon whomever would excel in good, and to clearly set out everything needful, and because of a mighty guidance and mercy; That haply in the encounter of their Lord they might believe” (6.154).
  4. Disparity in rank to express incredulity (tarakhi rutbi li l-istib‘ad), as in “They know the blessing of Allah; Yet incredibly, deny it, and most of them are rank unbelievers” (16.83), where again much of the point is missing without a sense of the incredibility of the denial.
  5. Disparity in rank of importance of the information (tarakhi rutbi li irtiqa’al-akhbar), as in “It is He who created you all from moist clay; And what is more,has set a term for each of you to reach . . .” (6.2).
  6. Disparity in time and rank (tarakhi zamani wa rutbi), as in “And He taught Adam the names one and all, then after, and more telling, showed all those named to the angels and said: ‘Tell Me the names of these if what you say is true’” (2.31). Or the verses “Then after and more momentous, are all of you to die. Then after and greatest in wonder, on the Day of Resurrection shall you be brought forth alive” (23.15–16).

These are the main uses of thumma, for otherwise, they often overlap or com- bine, according to the argument and context of the verses. The combined forms ((d) and (f)) and others are common, not rare, among the 338 instances in which thumma appears in the text of the Quran. The intent of these verses is not ade- quately conveyed by using the English words then or and, which are but a super- ficial representation of the first meaning above. One finds a discussion in the greatest of the classical exegeses in situ at the verses, or can read about them in the excellent Min asrar huruf al-‘atf fi al-Dhikr al-Hakim: al-fa’ wa thumma (28), by Muhammad al-Amin al-Khudari of Azhar—its publication data indicated here and for the other books cited below by each work’s parenthesized number (00) in the present volume’s bibliography.


A second thing found throughout the Quran is the emphatic use of the indefinite. The ‘indefiniteness’ or tankir of nouns in the Quran has been uniformly rendered in previous translations the same way it is normally denoted in English: by the decidedly unemphatic indefinite article a or an before them. To refresh our mem- ories, in the verse about Cain burying Abel “And Allah sent a crow (ghuraban) probing the earth (fi al-ard), to show him how to hide the shameful remains of his brother” (5.31), the word ‘crow’ is indefinite, that is, any sort of crow; while the earth is definite, namely the earth beneath our feet, which we all know.

Now, the primary meaning of the nakira (indefinite) in Arabic is ‘not known,’ and is the opposite of the grammatical term ma‘rifa (definite) or ‘known’ marked by al- or ‘the.’ But in Quranic Arabic, the indefinite’s signifying ‘not known’ often means its subject is in some way unheard-of. Put simply, such an indefinite noun is not unemphatic, as it is in English, but emphatic to the utmost.

Omitting instances when it is merely used to say that the object is but a ‘single thing’ (ifrad)—‘a crow,’ as above—as the indefinite normally means in English, this other, emphatic meaning is found 6,100 times in the Quran, in 3,520 of its verses, or 56 percent of them: that is, in most of the Quran. It is remarked upon by the tafsirs of Alusi, Ibn ‘Ashur, Abu Su‘ud, and others, indeed hardly possible for them not to notice. What does it emphasize?

  1. Plentitude (takthir), such as the verses “A multitude of faces (wujuhun) that day shall beam with joy; At their Lord wholly agaze” (75.22–23), which give an idea of the vastness of the divine mercy. Or the verse “Or like myriad deep shades of darkness (dhulumatin) in a fathomless sea, spread over with mighty waves, breaking over them waves yet mightier, reaching up towards towering black thunderheads above: Of blacknesses a multitude (dhulumatun), one upon another; When he pulls out his hand he cannot even see it: And whom Allah gives no light has no light at all” (24.40), which stresses the plethora of adversities against the benighted.
  2. Fewness (taqlil), such as the verse on some of the people of the Book “And you will always find them the most grasping of all mankind for any last pathetic shred of life (hayatin), even more than idolaters” (2.96), where the total lack in their “faith” of any longing for the next world is laid bare by the extreme diminish- ment (‘any last shred’) of the word ‘life,’ together with a second combined meaning of tahqir or contempt (‘pathetic’).
  3. Might or exaltedness (ta‘dhim wa tafkhim), such as the verse in which Solomon asks his retinue which of them will bring him the throne of Sheba “A powerful cunning fiend (‘ifritun) of the jinn said: ‘I shall bring you it before you even rise from holding court; And I am mighty and trustworthy enough to do so’” (27.39).
  4. Contempt (tahqir), such as in the verse “As soon as the envoy reached him, Solomon said: ‘Do you ply me with paltry wealth (bi malin)?’” (27.36). Or the verse of those of Sodom “Yet his people gave no answer but to tell each other, ‘Expel all those with Lot from your town: Verily they are a miserable handful of “better- folks” (unasun) who style themselves too pure to do as we do’” (27.56), which combines fewness (‘handful’) and contempt (‘miserable’) with the frequent Arabic distribution of nas or ‘people’ for “people of standing in society” (‘better-folks’), to express the speakers’ scorn for the godfearing. Combinations of two signifi- cations of the indefinite are very common in the Quran, especially in the Meccan passages.
  5. Being lost to all knowledge (ghayr mu‘ayyan), as in the verse “Slay Joseph, or cast him away hopelessly far lost in the land (ardan), and the face of your father will be free for you; And once he is gone, you may be thoroughly righteous men” (12.9), from which the finality of his intended fate is plain.
  6. Horror (tahwil), such as the verses “Verily it shall shut them horrifically in (‘alayhim mu’sadatun); Locked and barred fast with dreadful hell-bolts, wrought massive in length (fi ‘amadin mumaddadatin)” (104.8–9), about the utter woe of a fate with no hope of escape.
  7. Rarity (nudur), such as the verse “O you who believe, fear Allah, and let any rare soul that will (nafsun), always consider just what it has sent ahead for an unspeakably dire tomorrow (li ghadin)” (59.18), where the indefinite of the former is for rarity, the latter for horror. Or the verse “That We might make it a reminder; And the rare heedful ear (udhunun wa‘iyatun) comprehend it” (69.12), where the rarity makes the ear of hearers more attentive.

Further uses and combinations of tankir are found in the body of the translation below. Missing this emphatic indefinite is probably the greatest single leak of meaning and nuance in prior English translations. All seem to have made a false analogy between modern written Arabic, which no longer uses the indefinite for such purposes; and the Arabic of the Quran, which everywhere does. A stronger hermeneutic could have made a difference, or a stronger appreciation of the achievements of tafsir.

Continue in Part II

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