In one of his articles Mr. Jochen Katz has pointed out an inconsistency in Al-Aa`raaf 7: 157. The exact objection raised by Mr. Katz on this verse is:
Many verses in the Qur’an make clear that the Injil is given to Jesus who was born several hundred years [about 1,400] after Moses.
But in Sura 7:155-157 is the problem that Moses prays to Allah and in Allah’s response to Moses we read
Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet,
whom they find mentioned in their own (Scriptures), –
in the Taurat and the Gospel – …. — Sura 7:1571
Mr. Katz, in a later addition to the above writing, quoted a bigger portion of the verses and their translation. The translation quoted by Mr. Katz is as under:
… He said: “With My punishment I visit whom I will; but My mercy extendeth to all things. That (mercy) I shall ordain for those who do right, and practice regular charity, and those who believe in our signs; – those who follow the messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), – in the law and the Gospel; – for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it those who believe in him, honor him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him, – it is they who will prosper.” (156b – 157)
Say: “O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of Allah, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He that giveth both life and death; So believe in Allah and His Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believeth in Allah and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided.” (158)
At the end of these translations, Mr. Katz has written that in 156b and 157, Allah’s response to Moses has been given in which: “Allah gives criteria for the people whom he will be merciful with, introducing each criterion with “those, who …” (1) do right, (2) believe, (3) follow the messenger”. “Then”, according to Mr. Katz, “in 158 a new discourse begins”.
I am certain that half of the confusion shall stand resolved only if the quoted translation is replaced by the one that is more appropriate keeping in view the the grammatical construction of the verses as well as the general structure of the sentences that constitute the verses. Therefore it seems imperative that before proceeding any further, we should first take a look at the referred verses and their complete translation. The referred verse of the Qur’an (Al-Aa`raaf 7: 157) with a part of its preceding and a succeeding verses (156b – 158) reads as:
قَالَ عَذَابِي أُصِيبُ بِهِ مَنْ أَشَاءُ ۖ وَرَحْمَتِي وَسِعَتْ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ ۚ فَسَأَكْتُبُهَا لِلَّذِينَ يَتَّقُونَ وَيُؤْتُونَ الزَّكَاةَ وَالَّذِينَ هُم بِآيَاتِنَا يُؤْمِنُونَ ﴿١٥٦﴾ الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ ۙ أُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ ﴿١٥٧﴾ قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّـهِ إِلَيْكُمْ جَمِيعًا الَّذِي لَهُ مُلْكُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ لَا إِلَـٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ يُحْيِي وَيُمِيتُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّـهِ وَرَسُولِهِ النَّبِيِّ الْأُمِّيِّ الَّذِي يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّـهِ وَكَلِمَاتِهِ وَاتَّبِعُوهُ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ ﴿١٥٨﴾
He [i.e. God] said: I will inflict my punishment upon whom I please, yet My mercy encompasses all things. Thus, I will ordain it [i.e. My mercy] for those who live within the prescribed limits, pay Zaka’h, and those who believe in Our verses [revealed]. (156b)
[It is they] who are [now] following the messenger – the Unlettered Prophet – whom they find mentioned in the Torah and the Gospel. He enjoins righteousness upon them and forbids them from evil. He makes clean things lawful to them and prohibits all that is foul. He relieves them of their burdens and of the shackles that had weighed upon them. Thus, those who have believed in him and have honored him and have aided him and have followed the light sent down with him, are the ones that shall indeed triumph. Say [to them O Prophet,]: O people! I am God’s messenger to you all. [The God] Who has sovereignty over the kingdom of the heavens and the earth. There is no god but Him. He ordains life and causes death. Therefore have faith in God and His messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, who believes in God and His commandments. Follow him so that you may be rightly guided. (157 – 158)
This, in my opinion, is the correct translation and construction of the quoted verses. It should be obvious that according to this translation (and construction), contrary to Mr. Katz’s understanding, Allah’s response to Moses is given only in 156b. 157 and 158 are not a part of Allah’s response to Moses but a timely insertion of a parenthetical clause (as is the case at a number of instances in the Qur’an2 within the narrative of the history of the Israelites. In this parenthetical clause, God has reminded the people of the book of their duty at the advent of the Prophet (pbuh) — 157 — and through the call of the Prophet has invited them to the path of success — 158. Following are some of the main points which guide us to the conclusion that 157 should be considered a part of the discourse which continues in its succeeding verse rather than a continuation of 156b.
- The Arabic words ۚ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ as should be clear for those who have a good sense of the Arabic language, should be accurately translated as: “He relieves them of their burdens and of the shackles that had weighed upon them“, or in the words preferred (by Yusuf Ali, quoted) by Mr. Katz as: “He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that were upon them“, rather than Yusuf Ali’s translation, which is quoted by Mr. Katz: “He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them“. The underlined part of the sentences should be translated in the past rather than the present tense. The past tense (although even the present tense) of these words is a clear evidence that the words are not a part of God’s speech to Moses (pbuh) but a part of the discourse that continues in the succeeding verse.
- The portion of 157 quite correctly translated by Yusuf Ali (and quoted by Mr. Katz) as: “… he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes…”3 is a clear evidence of the fact that the words are not spoken to Moses by God, but are a part of the discourse which continues in the succeeding verse. Obviously, if these words were a part of God’s speech to Moses, they should have been in the future rather than the present tense.
- The last part of 157 also should literally be translated in the past tense. The translation of this part should be: “Thus, those who have believed in him (i.e. the unlettered Prophet) and have honored him and have aided him and have followed the light sent down with him, are the ones that shall indeed triumph”. Once again, it is obvious that these words are a part of the parenthetical clause in the narrative of the history of the Israelites rather than a part of God’s speech to Moses.
In view of the above mentioned linguistic bases, it is quite clear that 157 is a part of the discourse that continues in the succeeding verse, rather than a part of the God’s speech to Moses which has been reported in the previous verse.
In the later addition to his article Mr. Katz has briefly considered an explanation that is close to the one given above. Mr. Katz writes:
… I heard from one Muslim, responding to the problem by claiming: Since the verses 157 & 158 both contain the word “ummi” (unlettered) and the present tense in the word “follow”, this shows that 7:157 is really directed to Muhammad just like verse 158. But this obviously tortures the structure of the text beyond reasonableness on grammatical grounds as well as destroying the very argument 157 tries to present namely that the earlier prophet Moses already knew about this unlettered prophet to come.
In my response above I have given the grammatical basis of interpreting 157 as part of the discourse that continues in 158. I have also explained how an interpretation which considers 157 a part of God’s speech to Moses (pbuh) ‘obviously tortures the structure of the text beyond reasonableness on grammatical grounds’. However, Mr. Katz believes that on the contrary, interpreting 157 as a part of the discourse that follows in 158 would ‘obviously tortures the structure of the text beyond reasonableness on grammatical grounds’. I would, therefore, request Mr. Katz to kindly point out the ‘torture’ that the structure of the text is subjected to if 157 is considered a part of the discourse that continues in 158.
Mr. Katz has also pointed out that my interpretation also refutes “the very argument 157 tries to present namely that the earlier prophet Moses already knew about this unlettered prophet to come”. This is quite a strange line of reasoning. It is obvious that whether the verse is (incorrectly) taken to be a part of God’s speech to Moses (pbuh) or that of the discourse that continues in the succeeding verse, in both the cases, the implication that the advent of Unlettered Prophet was mentioned in the Torah and the Gospel remains unaltered.
Mr. Katz further writes:
There are prophecies about future prophets, particularly about “the prophet like Moses”, but the Qur’an gives one and only one distinctive characteristic by which we may recognize which prophecy is meant and this characteristic is that the prophet is referred to as unlettered. But that is a false statement since nowhere in the Torah or the Gospel is a (future or any) prophet called “unlettered”.
I really do not think that this point has anything to do with any internal contradiction or any logical inconsistency within the Qur’an. Therefore, it seems more reasonable that this point be taken up while replying to the external contradictions pointed out by Mr. Katz.
© Copyright February 2000. All Rights Reserved with the Author
- Although the quoted translation of the referred verse is not incorrect, yet all those who know the Arabic language would readily accept that the related part can be translated a little differently as well. In my opinion, the correct literal translation of the quoted part of the verse is: Those who are following the messenger – the Unlettered Prophet – whom they find mentioned in the Torah and the Gospel. [↩]
- This is especially the case where the Qur’an has given accounts of past incidents. Such incidents are generally not narrated by the Qur’an merely to inform its addressees of these incidents. On the contrary, incidents from the past have generally been narrated by the Qur’an for the specific purpose of establishing a point (which can be determined from the context of these narratives). Thus, during the course of these narratives, the Qur’an, in a parenthetical clause, would generally add a comment, which would not only specify the relationship of the narrative with the point that the Qur’an wants to establish but would also make the narrative of the historical incident more concordant with the conditions of the present. This is precisely the case in the verses under consideration. When the narrative of the history of the Israelites reached the stage where Moses (pbuh) prayed for their forgiveness and in return, God informed Moses (pbuh) of those who shall deserve His mercy and forgiveness — i.e. those who abide by the prescribed limits [i.e. Taqwa] pay Zaka’h and believe in the verses revealed by God — the narration is made coherent with the present through a parenthetical clause, which explains that after the advent of the Prophet (pbuh), only those who have believed in the Prophet (pbuh) can safely consider themselves deserving of the mercy and the forgiveness which was promised to Moses (pbuh) in return of his prayer. Thus, ‘those who have believed in him [i.e. the Prophet (pbuh)] and have honored him and have aided him and have followed the light sent down with him, are the ones that shall indeed triumph’ according to the promise made to Moses (pbuh).
Then in verse 158, as a continuation of this parenthetical clause, the Prophet (pbuh) is directed to call the people to believe in him and thereby to make themselves deserving of being rightly guided and thus the promised mercy of their Creator. [↩]
- Note the present tense in which all the attributes of the Prophet (pbuh) are being mentioned. Had this been a part of God’s speech to Moses, all these attributes of the Prophet (pbuh) should have been referred to in the future rather than the present tense. It should also be observed that although the present and the future tenses in the Arabic language are written in the same way, yet the construction of the complete sentence is such that these attributes cannot be translated in the future tense. [↩]