Often times languages will carry over words from another language that phonetically are the same rather than carrying over the literal meaning. A funny example of this is that in Farsi the name for popcorn is “chos-e-fil” چوس فیل which literally translates to elephant fart. The origin of this is that the first brand of popcorn that was introduced to Iran was Chesterfield which sounds a lot like “Chos-e-fil” and the rest is history. This same phenomenon also happened in Farsi with the word for gum, which is adams (aah-daah-mss), which comes from Adams Chewing Gum.
In Arabic there isn’t a letter that has the sound found in the English letter P, so instead any words that have this sound are often replaced with the Arabic letter ب which make a B sound. So in the below example for the word meat ball, rather than providing a literal translation this label provided a phonetic translation which carried the literal meaning of Paul is Dead.
While these are funny examples, this has serious consequences when translating more important text like scripture. This is why it is ever more important to always refer back to the original sources when these kind of interpretations arise.
An example of this in the Bible can be observed in Pslams 84, where the the phrase for “the valley of Baka,” which is a name of a city, was translated in early Greek translations as “the valley of weeping”. This is because the early Greek translation assumed the word בכא = Ba-k-a had the same meaning as the word בכה = ba-k-há which means “crying or weeping”. Similarly the Arabic word Bakka (بكَّ), with double “k”, should not to be confused with another unrelated Arabic word baka (بَكَى)(single k) which means to cry or weep. Despite sounding the same these two words have completely different meanings in both Hebrew and Arabic as the are associated with different roots.
A more serious example in the Quran can be seen in 38:44, in the context of the prophet Job. Here is a sample of how most translators have translated this verse:
|“And take in thy hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (thy oath).” Truly We found him full of patience and constancy. How excellent in Our service! ever did he turn (to Us)!|
|And (it was said unto him): Take in thine hand a branch and smite therewith, and break not thine oath. Lo! We found him steadfast, how excellent a slave! Lo! he was ever turning in repentance (to his Lord).|
|And take in your hand a green branch and beat her with It and do not break your oath; surely We found him patient; most excellent the servant! Surely he was frequent in returning (to Allah).|
|And WE commanded him: `Take in thy hand a handful of dry twigs and strike therewith, and incline not towards falsehood.’ Indeed, WE found him steadfast. An excellent servant was he. Surely, he was constantly turning to God.|
|“And take in your hand a bundle and strike with it, and do not break your oath.” We found him steadfast. What a good servant! He was repentant.|
|And We said to him, “Take in your hand a bundle of grass, and strike your wife with it, and do not break your oath.|
The common tafsir regarding this verse makes Job out as tyrant. Writers of tafsir believed that Job promised to beat his wife if he was to have his health restored. Then upon his health being restored he regretted his oath, so was instructed by God to beat his wife with grass as not to inflict serious harm upon her and maintain his oath. This false history was fabricated to justify the misunderstanding of this verse.
The mistake in translation occurs from two words. The first word ضِغْثًا comes from the root ﺽ غ ث which means a thing or person that is mixed up or confused. The connection with grass is that the root comes from having a handful of mixed dry grass. Individuals interpret this as in reference to the grass itself, but from the other meanings of the word it is not the grass that should be the emphasis but the mixing. Therefore the word is in regards to a thing being mixed up. This is the reason the other meanings of the root all have to do with things being mixed up, confused, or muddled. For instance the same root is used in 12:44 and 21:5 as a confused or nonsense dream, and as a confused dream or hallucination respectively.
The second word that needs to be understood in this verse is the word فَاضْرِبْ which comes from the root ﺽ ر ب and this root has many meanings but in this context it means “to travel” and also “to serve as an example” to others. For instance, see 3:156, 17:48, 25:39.
So in this verse God is commanding Job to take those who are confused or mixed up and serve as an example to them e.g. preach to them. So a more appropriate transition would be the following:
[38:44] “Now, you shall travel the land and preach the message, to fulfill your pledge.” We found him steadfast. What a good servant! He was a submitter.
(٤٤) وَخُذْ بِيَدِكَ ضِغْثًا فَاضْرِبْ بِهِ وَلَا تَحْنَثْ إِنَّا وَجَدْنَاهُ صَابِرًا نِعْمَ الْعَبْدُ إِنَّهُ أَوَّابٌ
A more infamous example of poor translation in the Quran is that of 22:15. Here is how many of the most popular translators have translated this verse:
|If any think that God will not help him (His Apostle) in this world and the Hereafter, let him stretch out a rope to the ceiling and cut (himself) off: then let him see whether his plan will remove that which enrages (him)!|
|Whoso is wont to think (through envy) that Allah will not give him (Muhammad) victory in the world and the Hereafter (and is enraged at the thought of his victory), let him stretch a rope up to the roof (of his dwelling), and let him hang himself. Then let him see whether his strategy dispelleth that whereat he rageth!.|
|Whoever thinks that Allah will not assist him in this life and the hereafter, let him stretch a rope to the ceiling, then let him cut (it) off, then let him see if his struggle will take away that at which he is enraged.|
|Whoso thinks that Allah will not help him in this world and the Hereafter, let him stretch a rope to heaven, and let him cut it off. Then let him see if his device can remove that which enrages him.|
|The Clear Quran|
|“Whoever thinks that Allah will not help his Prophet in this world and the Hereafter, let them stretch a rope to the ceiling and strangle themselves, the let them see if this plan will do away with the cause of their rage.|
If someone was to read the above translation they may have the false impression that God is advocating individuals to kill themselves. For one, suicide is prohibited in the Quran, therefore such an understanding cannot possibly be true because this would form a contradiction in the Quran.
[4:29] O you who believe, do not consume each others’ properties illicitly— only mutually acceptable transactions are permitted. You shall not kill yourselves. GOD is Merciful towards you.
(٢٩) يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَأْكُلُوا أَمْوَالَكُمْ بَيْنَكُمْ بِالْبَاطِلِ إِلَّا أَنْ تَكُونَ تِجَارَةً عَنْ تَرَاضٍ مِنْكُمْ وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا أَنْفُسَكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِكُمْ رَحِيمًا
So what is the proper translation of 22:15, and what is the right way to understand this verse. The word that is translated as “rope” is بِسَبَبٍ / bisababin, this word comes from the root س ب ب, which occurs nine times in the Quran. This root has the derivative meaning of relation, cause, means in addition to rope, and this is how this word is used in the other eight instances in the Quran.
If we look at this verse word by word the true meaning becomes more apparent that God is not advocating people to kill themselves but instead to sever their dependence on anything in this world and reinforce their relation with God in order to remove whatever it is that is bothering them.
|كَانَ||he used to||kāna|
|يَنْصُرَهُ||[He] will help / support him||yanṣurahu|
|وَالْآخِرَةِ||and the Hereafter,||wal-ākhirati|
|فَلْيَمْدُدْ||then let him extend / draw forth / reinforce||falyamdud|
|بِسَبَبٍ||with a rope / means / relation||bisababin|
|إِلَى||to (his Creator in)||ilā|
|لْيَقْطَعْ||let him cut off / sever|
(his dependence on anyone else),
|فَلْيَنْظُرْ||then let him see||falyanẓur|
|يَغِيظُ||it angers / irritates / bothers (him).||yaghīẓu|
[22:15] If anyone thinks that GOD cannot support him in this life and in the Hereafter, let him turn completely to (his Creator in) heaven, and sever (his dependence on anyone else). He will then see that this plan eliminates anything that bothers him.
(١٥) مَنْ كَانَ يَظُنُّ أَنْ لَنْ يَنْصُرَهُ اللَّهُ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ فَلْيَمْدُدْ بِسَبَبٍ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ ثُمَّ لْيَقْطَعْ فَلْيَنْظُرْ هَلْ يُذْهِبَنَّ كَيْدُهُ مَا يَغِيظُ