Should he say it, did he say it, or will he say it?

Surah Al-Anbiya' (21:4) & Surah Al-Mu'minun (23:112)

For Surah 21:4 we find the following variations in translation:

Al-Hilali & Khan Shakir Pickthall Arberry Yusuf Ali Muhammad Asad
He (Muhammad SAW) said: "My Lord knows (every) word (spoken) in the heavens and on earth. And He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower." He said: My Lord knows what is spoken in the heaven and the earth, and He is the Hearing, the Knowing. He saith: My Lord knoweth what is spoken in the heaven and the earth. He is the Hearer, the Knower. He says: 'My Lord knows what is said in the heavens and the earth, and He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.' Say: "My Lord knoweth (every) word (spoken) in the heavens and on earth: He is the One that heareth and knoweth (all things)." Say: "My Sustainer knows whatever is spoken in heaven and on earth; and He alone is all-hearing, all-knowing."

What is the "timing" of this proclamation? Does the Qur'an in S. 21:4 make a statement about the past (as in the versions of Shakir and Al-Hilali & Khan), a statement about the present (as in the versions of Pickthall and Arberry), or is it even a command (as in the versions of Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad)?

Is the Arabic text of the Qur'an so unclear that the translators are simply left guessing what the author may have meant?

Or is the Qur'an clear but the translators do not think that what it actually says in the Arabic text is appropriate, and thus some of them deliberately mistranslate it for the English reader? Are some translators trying to make the text appear more meaningful and more coherent in English than it actually is in Arabic?

The Arabic word is qala, and it means "he said". Why then are many translators rendering it differently?

Looking at S. 23:112, one can make a similar observation:

Al-Hilali & Khan Shakir Pickthall Yusuf Ali Rashad Khalifa
He (Allah) will say: "What number of years did you stay on earth?" He will say: How many years did you tarry in the earth? He will say: How long tarried ye in the earth, counting by years? He will say: "What number of years did ye stay on earth?" He said, "How long have you lasted on earth? How many years?"

The Arabic word is the same as on S. 21:4, i.e. qala = he said. In this verse, only Rashad Khalifa translates it correctly. Why are all others turning it into a statement about the future?

When looking the context of this verse, S. 23:99-115, it it is obvious that this passage describes a scene that will (supposedly) take place at the Last Judgment, i.e. in the future. Therefore, most translators render the verb in a future tense, despite the fact that this word is grammatically in the past tense.

Muslims claim that the Qur'an is a miracle of unsurpassable eloquence, and the Qur'an also claims to be a clear book, but is it clear or eloquent to use the wrong tense and to speak about the future by using past tense verb forms? Apparently, many Muslim translators are convinced that they can or even need to improve on the Qur'an in regard to clarity and meaningfulness of expression. As is shown by these two examples (and many more could be given), the wrong use of tenses confuses also learned Muslims and results in different translations because even experts in the Arabic language are not agreeing on whether the text is to be understood in past tense or future tense — or should it even be a command?

In the above two passages, we saw that the same word (qala) was translated differently by different Muslim scholars, because the Arabic text used a past tense for a future event. Some translators followed the text, others translated what they think should have been there instead of what is there.

In the final example, we will again see the word qala () being translated first in the past tense and then in the future tense within a couple of verses, but this time by the same translator. The following is an image of S. 20:121-128 in Yusuf Ali's version of the Qur'an, printed in 1946 in Pakistan. As one can easily see, the first word in verse 123, 125 and 126 is the same. Yet, in verse 123 qala is translated as "he said" but in verses 125 and 126 the same word is rendered as "he will say":

This is not peculiar to Abdullah Yusuf Ali; all translators into the English are doing this, and for obvious reasons. Verse 123 refers to the expulsion of mankind from Paradise, a past event, and Verses 125-126 refer to the Last Judgment, a future event. Not translating it this way would result in nonsense. My contention is not so much with the English version as it is with the Arabic. Why didn't the author of the Qur'an use the future tense in these last two verses? Is that the clarity and eloquence of the Qur'an? I find it difficult to believe that using the wrong tense is more eloquent than using the correct one.

The above observations were made while I was researching a much more serious issue that is discussed in the article The Fifteenth Qira'at.

Jochen Katz

Qur'an Versions
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