A third feature of the language of the Quran untranslated into English is the occasional use of feminine verbs for the actions of men (or vice versa), or to use feminine endings on otherwise masculine nouns. Both have an intended significance.

Like the yang and yin of Chinese culture, masculinity in the ancient tongue of the Arabs connotes strength, boldness, and forthright directness; while fem- ininity represents the obverse side of the coin, tenderness, mildness, delicacy, and artifice, “And the male is not the like of the female” (3.36). When the words or deeds of men are metaphorically feminized in the Quran, for example by using ‘she said’ (qalat) for ‘he said’ (qala), it usually carries various nuances of the gentle sex that are inappropriate for men, and meant to blame them—or that they said or did something in itself errant and blameworthy. More rarely, it con- notes feminine nuances that are appropriate for men, or intended as praise for them. Such gender reversals can imply a number of things.

  1. Contempt and deprecation (tahqir wa dhamm), as in the verse “The desert tribesmen emptily say (qalat): ‘We have embraced true faith.’ Say, ‘You have not embraced whole faith, but rather say: We have submitted in Islam, while whole faith has not yet entered your hearts’” (49.14), indicating that they were not saying it with their hearts. Or the verse, “The Jews have pathetically said (qalat): ‘Christians are on nothing,’ and the Christians pathetically said (qalat): ‘Jews are on nothing,’ while both assiduously read the scripture; Just so have those tribesmen who know nothing of any scripture said their very words!” (2.113), ‘pathetically,’ because both religions share many of the same scriptures and religious values, so should be more honest than to call it ‘nothing’ in the hands of their counterparts.

Contempt and deprecation also apply to noun forms such as ‘misguidance’ (al-dalal) when they are given feminine endings, as in the verse “Truly We have brought forth in every people a great messenger to ‘Worship Allah and shun the abomination of deviltry.’ So some of them did Allah guide, while others in- curred pathetic misguidance (al-dalala); So but journey in the earth and just look how was the end of those who cried lies” (16.36), which indicates the ease with which they could have fended off such paltry means of misguidance if they had but chosen to. There are many other meanings for ‘feminizing’ masculine nouns, such as tremendousness and horror (ta‘dhim wa tahwil), as in the verses “In the Name of Allah Most Merciful and Compassionate: When the Inevitable (al- Waqi‘a) falls; No soul may belie its befalling; Abasing and exalting” (56.1–3), in which al-waqi‘ or ‘the actual event’ is transformed by feminization into ‘the Inevitable’ whose tremendousness and horror the translator has rendered in its place through capitalization and shortness of line length, since terseness is power in English, and an overabundance of adjectives or adverbs is generally flaccid. The terminal soft h sound (ha’) itself conjures up woe, shock, and horror in many an Arabic word; and the feminine ending (ta’ marbuta) or an h alone at the end of the verse line is particularly well suited to fill sapient hearts with it, as can be felt in the ‘audial inimitability’ (i‘jaz sawti) of apocalyptic Meccan suras like Sura 69 The Indisputable (al-Haqqa), or Sura 88 The Whelming Doom (al- Ghashiya). Feminizing masculine nouns has been characterized in general by Ibn ‘Ashur as a ‘hyperbole of quality’ (mubalagha fi al-naw‘), an intensifier of their meaning, as in words like khalifa in the verse “And remind them when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I shall place a noble reigning deputy (khalifa) on earth’” (2.30), while Adam, the khalifa, was male.

  1. Delicacy, tenderness, and empathy (lutf wa riqqa wa hanan), as in the verse “Their messengers calmly told (qalat) them: ‘We are naught but men like you; Yet Allah bestows favor beyond thanks on whomever He wills of His servants” (14.11), praising their diplomacy in meeting scorn and denial with affability and premises that both sides could accept.
  2. Strength and power (quwwa wa shidda), when the masculine verb is used in place of a feminine, as in the verse “And some ladies spitefully spread about (qala) in the city: ‘The wife of the vizier seeks to seduce her young bondsman: She is rent to the depths of her heart with love; Verily we see her plainly astray’” (12.30), indicating that this was too strong and catty an initiative to take upon themselves at their own whim, and they should have refrained from it as proper reserved ladies. Or the verse “And call on Him in all fear and hope: Verily the mercy of Allah is very near indeed (qaribun) to those who excel in good” (7.56), where ‘mercy’ (rahma) is feminine and would normally take a feminine predicate, for which the ‘stronger’ masculine predicate (qaribun) stands in to rhetorically underscore the sheer closeness of this divine attribute to those who would draw near to the Divine.

This reversal of genders is less frequent for nouns than verbs, but in both is a very significant aspect of the Quran. Zamakhshari treats it in some places in his tafsir, though the best to exposit it is Biqa‘i, who not coincidentally is also one of the best who explain how each verse carries forward the argument, action, and theme of the sura it is found in, an aptness that requires a good sense of nuance and connotation.


A fourth point undiscovered in the Quran by prior English translations is the use for exalted respect (ta‘dhim) or contempt (tahqir) of free-standing demon- strative pronouns such as this (hadha, hadhihi), male and female; that (dhalika, tilka), male and female; these (ha’ula’i); and those (ula’ika). Examples are many.

  1. The masculine form of this (hadha) is used for contempt (tahqir) in some 23 verses of the Quran, 8 of them by the polytheists of Mecca in reference to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), as in the verse “And they whisper together in hushed converse, those who commit idolatrous wrong: ‘Is this wretched soul (hadha) but a human being like any of you; Would you embrace be- witchment, when you see full well?’” (21.3), reminding us that even when the worst revile the best, noble souls remain dauntlessly steadfast in their purpose through their knowledge of the Divine. Or the words of a devil about someone he is about to have flung into the hellfire on the Last Day, in the verse “His in- separable ominous companion shall say: ‘This pathetic being (hadha) with me is ready!’” (50.23), though the most pathetic thing about him is that he listened to his devil. Or the verse about the Quran “And those who disbelieve say: ‘This miserable wordage (hadha) is nothing but a great fabricated lie he has forged; And another people abetted him at it’” (25.4), recording their unbelief against them. It is sometimes also used for tremendousness (ta‘dhim), such as in the verse “Those who make remembrance of Allah standing and sitting and on their sides at rest, and who reflect on the creation of the heavens and earth: ‘Our Lord, You have not created all this (hadha) in vain; You are far above that!’” (3.191), out of awe for the majesty of the One who effortlessly created the entire cosmos from nothing. The feminine form of this (hadhihi) is used for the same purposes, as in the verse about the denizens of hell “The strikingly strange similitude of the good that they expend in the pathetic life of this world (hadhihi al-hayat al-dunya) is like that of a gale-wind in which was deathly biting cold that struck the tillage of a people who had wronged themselves, and laid it waste. Nor has Allah wronged them, but they only wrong themselves” (3.117), though the pronoun here merely strengthens the contemptibility intrinsic to the expression life of this world (al-hayat al-dunya), literally ‘the nether life,’ wherever the two words appear together in the Quran. As too in “Nor is the pathetic life of this world (hadhihi al-hayatal-dunya) but a frivolity and game; And verily the final abode, it alone is the life that is vibrantly forever alive (la hiya al-hayawan), did they but know” (29.64), the latter being the real word for human life.
  2. Just as the word this in English refers to something in some way ‘near’ while that refers to something ‘far,’ so too the Arabic counterparts of that, the masculine dhalika or feminine tilka, also refer, for the purposes of respect or contempt, to something far or ‘lofty in rank’ (‘aliyy al-rutba) in good or evil: that is, something ‘way up there’ in meriting respect or deserving contempt, or occasionally, in horror. Because this is often indicated in read or spoken English by tonal emphasis on a particular word, the translator has sometimes expressed it with shorter line-breaks showing where the emphasis should fall, putting the demonstrative pronoun as the only word of a line, or at the first of the line, or with various intensifiers, as in the verses “And whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger shall be with those Allah has truly blessed, of the prophets, the utterly true, the martyrs, and the wholly righteous: And how excellent are those as companions! All that is the very (dhalika) favor of Allah, and Allah suffices to know everything” (4.69–70), which emphasize that both the obedience and its mighty reward are of the vast bounty of Allah. Or for blame, in the verse right after Cain slaying his brother Abel, “For the utter villainy of that (dhalika) did We inscribe upon the children of Israel that whoever shall take a life for aught but a life or wreaking baleful corruption across the earth, shall be as if he had killed all mankind together; And whoever saves a life, shall be as if he had saved all mankind together” (5.32).

The feminine that (tilka) is similarly used, as in the verse “That incomparable (tilka) final abode have We made for those who want no haughty supremacy on earth or any corruption; And the final issue is to the godfearing” (28.83), drawing attention to the incommensurability of the reward in the next world to the intentions and deeds that Allah wants from Man in this. Or the verses “What, do you have the males, and He but females? Then that (tilka) is a division rankly stinting!” (53.21–22), where the position and sound in the second verse of the first two words together, with the exclamation mark at the end, convey something of the pronoun’s contempt for the disparity.

  1. The human plural of the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ is these (ha’ula’i), each of these two pronouns being ‘nearer’ to us than ‘that’ and its plural those (ula’ika). Each of these plural pronouns are used for praise or blame in the same ways that their singulars are above. That is, these (ha’ula’i) is used just as this (hadha/hadhihi) is used above in (a); and those (ula’ika)—because of the same connotation of something far or ‘lofty in rank’ (‘aliyy al-rutba) for better or worse—in the same way that that (dhalika/tilka) is used in (b) above.

Among the examples of the uses of the human pronoun these (ha’ula’i), used 16 times in the Quran for blame, is the verse “Here you all are, being these fools (ha’ula’i): you have argued for them in this world; So who shall argue with Allah for them on the Day of Resurrection, or who be their defender?” (4.109); where ‘you’ rank high in folly for pleading for the indefensible. Or the verse “Those were whom We vouchsafed scripture, judgement, and prophethood: So if these wretched souls (ha’ula’i) now deny these things of any prophet, We shall certainly consign true faith therein to a noble people never to disbelieve in them” (6.89), which underscores the difference in people of the Book between what their forefathers were, and what they and the unbelievers of Quraysh now do, and why Allah may supplant them with others more receptive to His message than they. Of the examples of those (ula’ika) that blame, among 84 in the Quran, are the verses about people of the Book “And they say to those who disbelieve: ‘These idolators are more rightly guided in path than those who believe.’ So vile as those (ula’ika) are whom Allah has truly cursed; And whomever Allah curses, you will never find any to help him” (4.51–52), cursed because their animosity against the religion has led them to lie about their own convictions in order to misguide others about it. And in praise, among some 85, is the verse “Those (ula’ika), theirs is an incomparable share bestowed because of all they worked for; And Allah is unerringly swift to reckon” (2.202), in which the translation suffices with a pause after the word to emphasize their special rank with their Creator.


The adverbs of time qabla, qabla(hu), min qablu, and min qabli(hi), with and without min, and with other pronominal suffixes, have been uniformly rendered in past translations as previously, before, aforetime, of old, and so forth, indicating ‘simple temporal priority’ without further distinction. Some translations omit them in some verses as if they were completely insignificant. Now chronology, as any successful trial lawyer knows, is often of the greatest importance in understand- ing things, and traditional scholars of the Quran distinguish a number of different senses for such adverbs of time, which have a great deal to do with understanding the meaning of the verses in which they appear, such as:

  1. The entirety of all times before the referent (istighraq jami‘ al-azmina al-qabliyya), as in the verse “Allah has shown truly boundless favor to believers when He sent them a messenger of themselves who recites to them His verses, makes them grow to full purity in faith and deed, and teaches them the Book and wisdom; While the whole time before (min qablu) they had been plainly astray” (3.164), where the magnitude of the divine favor is emphasized by the dire length of the situation now alleviated. Or the verse “Not a single town We destroyed ever believed before them (qablahum) because of such a sign: So shall these then believe?” (21.6), to drive home the force of the rhetorical question at the end, about the superfluity of the miraculous sign being requested by unbelievers— though here the ‘entirety of all previous times’ derives not from the use of min, as in the previous example, but from the context of “Not a single town” in the verse. Or to advert to min, “No calamity ever strikes, on earth or in yourselves, but is written in a primal record the whole time before (min qabli an) We bring it with flawless wisdom forth: Verily all that is easy for Allah. So that you may not grieve in loss for whatever you miss, or exult over what He has bestowed you; And Allah loves no haughty braggart” (57.22–23), which is more telling against grief over what one “has missed” than an expression of simple temporal priority.
  2. Immediacy before the time of the referent (al-qabl al-qarib), as in the verse “As often as they are given, of any fruit of them, ample delicious regular pro- vision, they say, ‘This is fully what we have been brought just before (min qablu)!’ and they are given its very match in perfection” (2.25), the difference of which from earthly fruits, whose quality varies, tells why they are overjoyed in wonder. Or in the verses “And Man actually says: ‘What, when I am dead and gone, shall I indeed be raised up alive?’ Or can Man not even remember that We created him just before (min qablu), when he was nothing soever?” (19.66–67), to emphasize how little Man remembers what should not be yet forgotten.
  3. Immediacy before something is missed (min qabli fawat al-awan), as in the verse “Eagerly respond to your Lord in time before (min qabli) an unutterable day comes of a sudden, not to be turned back by Allah: No refuge shall you find on that day, nor anyone to even object” (42.47), where the urgency of the com- mand is underscored by language evoking the usual human reaction to losing an irreplaceable chance to head off disaster. Or the verse about some of the hyp- ocrites in Medina, “If the slightest good befalls you, it dismays them, and should a calamity strike you, they say, ‘We took our fitting precautions in time (min qablu),’ and they turn away exulting” (9.50).
  4. Metaphorical immediacy before the time of the referent (al-qabl al-qarib majazan), by way of hyperbole to emphasize the recentness of all times in the time- frame of the Divine, as in the verses about two ancient peoples who defied Allah in His command: “And that He alone destroyed the former ‘Ad; And Thamud, nor of either spared a man. And the people of Noah but before (min qablu): Verily were they even worse in wronging, and in transgression” (53.50–52), though ‘Ad and Thamud were separated from Noah by whole eras. Or the verse which tells believers not to seek answers about things of no benefit to them, which if disclosed in new divine commands would only dismay them, “A people not so long before you (min qablikum) once asked about them, yet incredibly, then flouted them in unbelief” (5.102), lest they follow the path of those of no great space of time (or other essential difference from themselves) before—though the pre- vious prophet delivered his message more than a half a millennium prior.

These and related adverbials of qabl, with or without min and the pronominal suffixes of their instances, appear 242 times in the Quran. The above four uses are merely the main ones, and like thumma, they sometimes overlap or combine, according to the purpose and context of the verses. The relegation of all these meanings to ‘simple temporal priority’—antecedent and subsequent—does not do justice to what is intended by the original. The same may be said for ba‘d and min ba‘d, with or without pronominal suffixes, which appear some 199 times. Confining the list for brevity to but two of the several senses identified by Quranic scholars, analogous to the first two senses given above for qabl and min qabl, there are:

  1. The entirety of all times after the referent (istighraq jami‘ al-azmina al-ba‘diyya), as in “And all who ever came after them (min ba‘dihim) say: ‘Our Lord, forgive us and our brethren who won unto true faith before we; Nor put the slightest rancor in our hearts for any who believe: Our Lord, verily You are all-tender, all-compassionate’” (59.10), in which this prayer to Allah for tolerance and forgiveness in one’s heart towards other believers is mandated, in word and spirit, for everyone with faith until the end of time. Or the verses “The believer said: ‘My people, verily I fear for you the like of the awful day that befell those leagued against their prophets: Like the same invariable wont of the people of Noah, ‘Ad, Thamud, and all who ever came after them (min ba‘dihim): While Allah never so much as even desires the least wrong for any servants’” (40.30–31), which underscore the justice and inevitability of the fate of the wicked by its being Allah’s invariable wont as long as men may exist.
  2. Immediacy after the time of the referent (al-ba‘d al-qarib), as in the verse “Nor did those before divide into factions against each other but just when (min ba‘di) the knowledge of the Truth forbidding it had reached them . . .” (42.14), which emphasizes the sordidness of their factious hatreds, to the point of know- ingly flouting the Divine to indulge them. Or in the same sura, “And those who dispute about Allah just when (min ba‘di ma) He has been responded to with men’s whole acceptance of Islam, their argument is a floundering failure with their Lord, and upon them is utter wrath, and they shall have an implacable chastise- ment” (42.16), which tells those who argue about Allah to know when to give up.

To render such expressions with simple temporal posteriority by after and the like, does not do justice to either the intended generality of passages like those given in (e); or the affront to the Divine in the immediacy of the examples of (f).

Two related adverbials that also take min before them are fawq or ‘above,’ found 41 times in the Quran, and taht or ‘beneath,’ found 51 times; though min fawq usually differs from fawq in but the immediacy of the relation: right above, just above, atop: as does the more immediate min taht or ‘just beneath,’ which is closer and more proximate than the simple taht or ‘under’: as in the verse “Had only they upheld the Torah and the Gospel and what has now been sent down to them from their Lord, they had eaten their goodly provision from right above them (min fawqihim) and beneath their very feet (min tahti arjulihim)” (5.66), in which the proximateness emphasizes the ease of obtaining one’s needs from one’s Lord when genuinely trying to uphold His commands. Or the verse “Say, ‘It is He who is well able to loose against you a devastating chastisement from just above you (min fawqikum) or right beneath your feet (min tahti arjulikum)’” (6.65), which brings the threat of devastation lethally close to home. Or, “All those before them laid wiles, and Allah had at what they erected from its very founda- tions, and the whole roof gave way right on them (min fawqihim); And the chas- tisement took them from whence they could not even tell” (16.26), where the impossibility of getting out from right under the collapse of the metaphorical ‘roof’ of their machinations exemplifies the hopelessness of their getting the better of Allah.

A nuanced translation requires a feel for the nuances of the original. Such adverbs of time and their uses are explored in works like Min asrar huruf al-jarr (29) by Muhammad al-Amin al-Khudari, whose other work we have mentioned above at I, and in the tafsirs themselves, particularly that of Ibn ‘Arafa (14), but also in places in those of Biqa‘i (12), Ibn ‘Ashur (15), and the excellent Ma‘ani al-nahw (46) by the contemporary Iraqi scholar Fadil Salih al-Samarra’i.

Continue in Part III

Subscribe & Stay Up to Date With Our Releases!
Subscribe & Stay Up to Date With Our Releases!Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!