A sixth feature of Quranic Arabic unnoted by previous translations is plurals of paucity and plenitude: that the several plurals of a single Arabic noun may express many of the referent (takthir), or few (taqlil), just as indefiniteness (tankir) does to its referent, as in II (a) and (b) above. Such plurals may also be indefinite to further amplify the paucity or plenitude. And they may bear directly on the very point of a verse.

    • The plural of paucity (jam‘ al-qilla), signifying three to ten in number, is used by the Creator praising His prophet Abraham in the verse “Full of gratitude (shakiran) for the most insignificant of His blessings (an‘umihi); And He chose him and guided him to an exalted straight path” (16.121), where the former indefinite (shakiran) magnifies his gratitude, and the latter plural of paucity (an‘um) signifies: let alone the greatest of His blessings—indicating an even loftier gratitude, and more praiseworthy. Or the verses “So as for ‘Ad, they waxed high and haughty on earth without right, and said, ‘Who is mightier than we in force?’ Or could they not see that Allah who created them was mightier than they in force? And they knowing full better denied Our very signs. So We loosed upon them a shrieking wind of deadly cold for a paltry few luckless days (fi ayyamin nahisatin), to let them taste the chastisement of utter humiliation in this life” (41.15–16), showing the ease with which they were destroyed despite all their vaunted might, the whole thrust of the two verses. Or “So when they beheld it, a mighty cloud filling the horizons drawing inexorably nearer, dwarfing their valleys (awdi- yatihim), They said, ‘This is a vast cloud that shall plenish us with rain.’ Rather, it is what you have been hastening against yourselves: A blasting wind in which is an agonized chastisement” (46.24), referring also to ‘Ad, a great people dwell- ing in many valleys, while awdiya is a plural of paucity, indicating but a tiny hand- ful of settlements—which were here only made to look so in comparison to the utter enormousness of the cloud of death dwarfing their valleys.
    • The plural of plenitude (jam‘ al-kathra), signifying more than ten, is used in the verse “That was because there graciously came to them their many messengers (rusuluhum) time and again with unmistakably clear proofs; Yet they said: ‘What, mere human beings should guide us?’ So they disbelieved, and turned away, and Allah did without them; And Allah is far exalted above need for any, all-laudable in bounty” (64.6), whose plural of plenitude for ‘messengers’ (rusul) underscores how many chances they were given. Or the verse “Or can you have not considered those who fled their homes by the thousands (wa hum uluf) out of cowardice to die fighting? So Allah told them, ‘Die all of you!’ and only after a time did He revive them. Allah is truly bounteous of favor upon mankind, yet most men show no thanks” (2.243), in which the many thousands (uluf) of cowards to uphold the truth typify the thanklessness of Man. Or the verse “So precisely for breaking their fearful covenant did We do to them what We did; And their disbelief in the unmistakable signs of Allah, and slaying so many prophets (al-anbiya’) without the slightest right, and saying, ‘Our hearts are in- nately grown over shut from heeding you’; Rather, Allah has set an indelible stamp of wrong on their hearts for their unbelief, so they believe not at all, but pitiably little!” (4.155), in which the plenitude of ‘prophets’ (anbiya’) casts in high relief the serial crimes committed against them. Or “Then ultimately and greater, We placed you on a mighty guiding path of the whole momentous matter: So follow it wholeheartedly, and follow not the innumerable vain fancies (ahwa’) of those who know nothing” (45.18), emphasizing the fruitlessness of catering to the illusions of the ignorant that one is trying to cure them of.

    The outstanding work of Fadil al-Samarra’i Ma‘ani al-abniya fi al-‘Arabiyya (45) discusses many examples of both kinds of plurals, which are also treated by the tafsir of Biqa‘i at their verses.


    The seventh matter with previous translations is an over-reliance on English-Arabic dictionaries, previous translators, or even biblical renderings. The original Arabic derivation (ishtiqaq) and lexical usage (lugha) of words play a key part in grasping the intent of the Quran, both for individual verses, and for the forward movement of the themes of the various suras they appear in. While it is not possible to be as succinct here as in the preceding matters, the problem can be elucidated by ten examples of meanings significantly missed.

    • ‘Lush-shaded grove’ (janna), as in the verse “And We said: ‘O Adam dwell in peace, you and your wife, in the lush-shaded grove of paradise (al-janna), and eat of it in abundant ease wherever you wish, but come not even near to this tree, lest you be of the grave wrongdoers’” (2.35), in which the root meaning of the term janna signifies a grove of trees whose shade is so dense it blocks out (jann) all sunlight. Now a ‘garden,’ the invariable (and biblical) rendering, unless it is more neglected than most, seldom reaches above chest-level, so does not bear the Quranic implication very well.
    • ‘As but the first round of hospitality’ (nuzulan) is rendered in translations as ‘everlasting hospitality,’ or merely ‘hospitality,’ ‘reward,’ or ‘gift of welcome,’ but signifies a great deal more, whether literally, as in “Verily those who believe and work righteous deeds; Theirs shall be vast luxuriant groves of supreme Par- adise, as but the first round of their hospitality” (18.107), or ironically (tahakkuman), as in the verse “Or do those who disbelieve deem they shall take My servants be- neath Me as powerful protecting allies? Verily We have prepared the glowering hell abyss for unbelievers as but the first round of their hospitality” (18.102). In each verse, the word nuzul means ‘the first tidbits offered to guests before the main meal is brought out,’ a metaphor that what comes on top of that will be infinitely more undescribable, and Man’s ignorance thereof remains far greater than his knowledge. Note also the word for hell jahannam in the latter verse, the opposite of janna above, etymologically derives from ‘horrific depth’ or ‘menacing frown,’ combined in the translation as ‘glowering hell abyss.’
    • A ‘man’ (mar’) in the Quran is not the mere counterpart of a female, but the very type of muru’a or ‘consequence,’ ‘manliness,’ and ‘worth as a man’; which is essential to understand such verses as “O you who believe: wholeheartedly an- swer Allah and the Messenger when he summons you to what brings you to life: And know at your peril that Allah may come between even a very able man (al-mar’) and what he has set his heart to one day do. And to Him shall you inevitably be massed” (8.24), where the word is used to emphasize that even the most effective of men—let alone anyone else—should hang back no longer, but whole- heartedly respond to the muster for battle before it is too late. Or the verses about Judgement Day “A day when even a real man (al-mar’) will flee from his own brother; And mother and father; And his long-loved wife and very sons. Every last man of them will have too weighty a care for anything else” (80.34–37), em- phasizing the sheer terror of the events, which shall daunt even the most daunt- less—save those who matter with Allah.
    • Nor is the word ‘woman’ (imra’a) in the Quran used in mere contradistinc- tion to a male, but rather to a ‘wife’ (zawj). A ‘wife’ (zawj) is someone her husband is at accord with, as in “Verily the dwellers of paradise this day are supremely occupied at bliss, in unending joy with converse; They and their wedded mates (azwajuhum) in luxuriant shade, reclining at their ease on high canopied daises” (36.55–56). The word ‘woman’ (imra’a) is rather used to note a marital rift, whether in point of religion, or lack of children for example, as in the verse “And Allah has struck as a wondrous strange similitude for those who believe, the estranged wife (imra’a) of Pharaoh, when she said: ‘My beloved Lord, build me an unsurpassed home with You in the luxuriant grove of paradise, and wholly deliver me from Pharaoh and all he does; And deliver me from the people of the wrongdoers’” (66.11), while she neither bore him issue, nor followed his religion; and Allah answered her prayers and perfected her.
    • A ‘year’ (sana) in the Quran is not just the elapsing of the four seasons, as in modern Arabic, but is used exclusively for bad, hard, or lean years, as in the verse about some of the people of the Book “Any of them burningly wishes if only he could have his life prolonged beyond others by a thousand dreary years (alfa sanatin); While it shall not wrest him from the grip of the chastisement to have his life made long; And Allah sees all they do” (2.96), indicating an insatiable greed for life, even to the point of making oneself completely miserable, that pays no heed at all to eternity. Or in Joseph telling what the king’s dream por- tended, “He said, ‘You are to diligently sow for seven hard years (sinina), and whatever you reap leave in its ear, save for a little of which you eat’” (12.47), meaning years of painstaking toil. Its complementary term is another word for ‘year’ (‘am) or good year, as in the portent of the end of the king’s dream “Then finally after that shall come an excellent year (‘amun) in which men shall be wholly saved, and in which they shall press out the very juice and oil” (12.49). Or the verse “And verily We sent Noah to his people; And he bode among them a thousand hard years (alfa sanatin), save for fifty good years (‘aman) at the end;—And the deluge took them as they committed wrongs” (29.14), the final fifty years referring to the blessed and happy period to the end of his life, after the flood had destroyed the evildoers of his people.
    • An example particularly interesting for its lexical derivation is ‘striven- for exalted standing’ (qadam sidq) in the verse “Do men wonder that We have inspired unto a man of them to warn mankind, and give bounteous glad tidings to those who believe that they shall have a flawless exalted standing (qadama sidqin) with their Lord for which they strove?” (10.2), where qadam means ‘foot,’ as in the phrase “on a high footing,” but implying that it was reached by striving, as one strives with footsteps; meaning that mankind should take advantage of the tid- ings by getting moving towards their eternal stations.
    • Derivation (ishtiqaq) and lexical usage (lugha) of a particular word often disclose multiple meanings inseparable from it, such as the reiterated verse in ‘The Moon’ (al-Qamar) “Verily have We made the Quran memorable with ease, so is there anyone to heed, fear, and remember (muddakir)?” (54.32), where the ease of the Quran’s memorability throws into high relief the final telling question. If a surfeit of words is feared, good translation, for its part, must come to the point. If more words are needed to do so in a ‘gloss’—even of a line or two—of the full meaning, such is translation. Brevity is power, but clarity even more powerful. Our final three examples are of glosses to render single Arabic words.
    • The ‘oft penitent’ (munib) is the special object of Allah’s loving attention among mankind, and has been glossed wherever it appears, to tell readers how to be one, as in the verses “And the earth have We outspread; And cast in it firm- anchoring mountains; And raised in it herbage of every delightful pair: All to give lucid insight, and as a momentous reminder to every servant who turns to his Lord from every error in sincerity and love (munib)” (50.7–8), which disclose what kind of heart such a reminder benefits most.
    • To grow pure (tazakka) is a fifth-form verb, implying painstaking, perse- vering effort to attain the meaning of the root, as in the verse “And no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another; And did a sin-laden soul call on another to help bear it, not the slightest of it would be borne at all, even were the called-on of nearest kin. You can warn only those in dread awe of their Lord though He be unseen, and who well keep the prayer. And whoever strives to grow to full purity in faith and deed (tazakka) but does so (yatazakka) to his own gain; And to Allah is the final return” (35.18)—all of which are reasons never to give up until purity is attained.
    • Allah strikes a similitude of hypocrites in the sura of that name (al-Muna- fiqun) by saying “And when you see them, their sleek bodies please you, and should they speak, you heed their eloquent words:—As though they were a bunch of fair-seeming great planks of wood, worm-rotten inside, left sitting for useless against the wall (khushubun musannadatun). They deem every cry raised to be against them; They are the enemy, so beware them” (63.4). Now a gloss of this length to translate but two Arabic words may strike some readers as overdone, florid, or too emphatic, yet fewer words do not do justice to what they say. Sheikh ‘Ali derived it point by point from Mustafawi’s fourteen-volume al-Tahqiq fi kalimat al-Qur’an al-Karim (36), Muhammad Hasan Jabal’s four-volume al-Mu‘jam al- ishtiqaqi al-mu’assal li alfadh al-Qur’an al-Karim (21), together with the tafsirs of Zamakhshari, Ibn ‘Ashur, Alusi, Abu Su‘ud, Abu Hayyan, Biqa‘i, and others. The meanings are there, and what the two words signify is a group of people of af- fluence and standing in the society who are faithless, hollow, eaten by doubts, as discarded by their Creator as rubbish piled against a wall, where they sit talking with each other to the detriment of others—as men still congregate together, though not necessarily for detriment, in rural villages in Eastern lands today seated against a shady wall in the afternoon to pronounce on matters of moment.

    The often considerable meaning gaps in previous translations seem due to hav- ing turned a blind eye toward traditional Muslim exegetical, etymological, and lexicographical literature. Most educated people today are willing to concede with Malcolm Gladwell in his Outliers that 10,000 hours of practice can and do produce extraordinarily successful sports champions, computer programmers, and software magnates. But few in the history of Western studies of Islam and the Quran seem to have been able to grasp that the same number of hours spent in analysis, research, and work by some of the greatest Muslim scholars of their age can produce works about the Quran that deserve to be read by those who would understand it today. Translators of the future may know better.

    Continue in Part IV

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