In one of his writings, Mr. Jochen Katz has pointed out a discrepancy in two narratives of the Qur’an (relating to the same event) which amounts to a contradiction in the Qur’an. The narrative relates to the incident of Jonah (pbuh), when he was swallowed by the fish. A summary of the said discrepancy is as follows:
In Al-Saaffaat 37: 145, the Qur’an says that Jonah (pbuh) was cast out on the desert shore, while in Al-Qalam 68: 49, the Qur’an says that if God had not been kind on Jonah, he would then have been cast out on the desert shore.
The contradiction, according to Mr. Katz, (and all those who would have a close look at the above translations of the respective verses) is obvious.
In the following paragraphs, I shall present my point of view regarding the referred verses and thereby show why, in my opinion, there is no discrepancy in the two narratives and, therefore, no contradiction in the Qur’an.
However, before I present my point of view regarding the meaning and implication of the two verses, let us first take a look at the words and translation of the two verses.
The two verses are given below. Al-Saaffaat 37: 145 reads as:
فَنَبَذْنَاهُ بِالْعَرَاءِ وَهُوَ سَقِيمٌ
Then we threw him, gravely ill, upon the barren shore.
Al-Qalam 68: 49 reads as:
لَّوْلَا أَن تَدَارَكَهُ نِعْمَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِ لَنُبِذَ بِالْعَرَاءِ وَهُوَ مَذْمُومٌ
Had it not been for the favor of his Lord upon him, he would indeed have been thrown upon the barren shore, disgraced.
It may apparently seem to lay person — who only scans through the words of the two verses without the attention that they deserve — that they are quite obviously contradictory. However, expected, as it should have been, the two verses have been explained by many of the major commentators of the Qur’an. I am sure Mr. Katz must have closely considered the explanation given by these commentators of the Qur’an before writing his article. Nevertheless, he has unfortunately failed to point out what, in his opinion, is wrong with this explanation and why, in his opinion, the explanation given by these commentators is not acceptable to him. Whatever reasons Mr. Katz may have had for ignoring this explanation given by these commentators, it only seems reasonable that we should take a brief look at this explanation and see whether it is acceptable or not.
Al-Zamukhsharee, while explaining Al-Qalam 68: 49, writes in “Al-Kashaaf“:
و قد اعتمد في “لو لا” على الحل. أعني قوله “وهو مذموم” يعني أن حاله كانت على خلاف الذم حين نبذ بالعراء. ولو لا توبته، اكانت حاله على الذم.
The denotative of state, i.e. “wa huwa madhmoom” (‘disgraced’, or ‘in a state of disgrace’) is the apodosis (completing clause of a conditional clause) of the protasis (i.e. the conditional clause) beginning with “law laa” (‘Had it not been’). That is to say that his [Jonah’s] state was not one of disgrace, when he was thrown on the barren shore, had he not repented, his state would have been one of disgrace.
Al-Raazi, in his famous exegesis of the Qur’an “Al-Tafsir al-Kabir“, while explaining Al-Qalam 68: 49 writes:
لولا هذه النعمة لنبذ بالعراء مع وصف المذمومية، فلما حصلت هذه النعمة، لا جرم لم يوجد النبذ بالعراء مع هذا الوصف. لأنه لما فقد ذلك المجمع.
Had it not been for this [mentioned] favor [of his Lord], he would have been thrown on the naked shore with the attribute of disgrace. However, due to this favor [of his Lord], though the “throwing on the barren shore” was still there, yet it was without the attribute of disgrace. Thus, when the attribute of disgrace was not there, then he [Jonah] was not thrown on the barren shore in disgrace.
Abu Hayyaan in his exegesis of the Qur’an, “Al-Bahr al-Muheet“, while explaining the same verse, writes:
وجواب “لو لا” قوله: “لنبذ بالعراء وهو مذموم”. أي لكنه نبذه وهو غير مذموم كما قل “فنبذناه بالعراء”. والمعتمد فيه على الحال لا على النبذ مطلقا، بل بقيد الحال.
The apodosis of “law laa” (had it not been) is the complete phrase “la nobidha bil`araa wa huwa madhmoom” (‘he would indeed have been thrown upon the barren shore, disgraced’), that is, on the contrary, He [God] threw him [Jonah] upon the barren shore without any disgrace as is mentioned in “fa nabadhnaahu bil`araa” (‘then we threw him upon the barren shore’) [in Al-Saaffaat 37: 145]. The reliance of the apodosis is on the denotative of state, not on the act of throwing alone. It is conditional with the denotative of state.
Al-Aalusi, while explaining this verse, writes in his commentary of the Qur’an “Rooh al-Bayaan“:
“وهو مذموم” في موضع الحال من مرفوع نبذ وعليها يعتمد جواب “لو لا” لأن المقصود امتناع نبذه مذموما وإلا فقد حصل النبذ فدل أن حاله كانت على خلاف الذم.
“wa huwa madhmoom” (disgraced) is a denotative of state for the subject of the verb “nubidha” (thrown) and on this denotative of state relies the apodosis of [the protasis] “law laa” (had it not been). Because the implication is that he was not thrown in disgrace, although the throwing was still present. This shows that he was not thrown in disgrace.
Al-Qurtabi, in the explanation of the verse writes in his exegesis “Al-Jaami` le Ahkaam al-Qur’an“:
“لنبذ بالعراء وهو مذموم” أي لنبذ مذموما ولكنه نبذ سقيما غير مذموم.
“lanubidha bil`araa wa huwa madhmoom” (he would indeed have been thrown on the upon the barren shore, disgraced), that is to say that if he had not been blessed by his Lords favor he would then have been thrown in disgrace, however, he was thrown in a state of illness, not in a state of disgrace.
These are the opinions of some of the commentators of the Qur’an. Although my opinion regarding the meaning of the verse shall follow shortly, nevertheless, it seems quite strange to me that Mr. Katz should mention the two referred verses as contradictory and not even give a hint to what, in his opinion, is lacking in the explanation of these commentators. I would suggest that Mr. Katz should give at least a brief explanation to that effect, as soon as is possible for him.
In my opinion, although the opinion expressed by the mentioned commentators is not incorrect in any respect, the real misunderstanding in the determination of these verses has actually been a general lack of in-depth understanding of the usage of verbs in the classical Arabic language. It would therefore be befitting that before we explain the two verses, a brief explanation be presented about the usage of simple verbs in the classical Arabic language.
Verbs in the classical Arabic language were used in varying shades of their meanings. Sometimes the verb may be used to imply only the beginning or the initiation of the action (relating to that verb), sometimes it may be used to imply the completion of the action (in that verb) and sometimes, it maybe used to imply the continuity or the perpetuation of the action (in that verb). Hamiduddin Al-Farahi, in his book “Al-Takmeel fi Usul al-Ta’weel“1 writes:
ثم لهذه الوجوه دلالات شتى. مثلا الفعل يدل تارة على بدء العمل، وتارة على استمرار وتارة على اكماله.
… For instance, the verb can sometimes imply the initiation of the action, sometimes its continuity or perpetuation and sometimes the completion of the action.
Explaining the different shades of the meanings that a simple verb may imply, he further writes2:
(١) اطلاق الفعل على بدء الفعل كما قال تعالى: “فأما ثمود فهديناه فاستحبوا العمى على الهدى” سورة فصلت آية ١٧١. وقال تعلى: “إنا هديناه الستيل إم شاكرا وإما كفورا” سورة الإنسان، آية ٢.
(٢) اطلاق الفعل على نتيجته كما قل تعالى: “وعصى آدم ربه فغوى” سورة طه آية ١٢١. فكان العصيان من آدم عليه السلام لما خلاف ما أمر به ربه. ولكنه فعل ما فعل لما نسي أمر الرب كما قال تعالى: “و لقد عهدنا إلى آدم من قبل فنسي و لم نجد له عزما” سورة طه آية ١١٥.
(٣) ويشبه الثاني اطلاق الفعل أو الصفة لما يقع حسب الإذن والأمر كما يقال: بنى الملك جسرا وإغما بني بأمره. ومن هذا الباب ما يتبع فعل العبد من الضلالة والهداية كما قال تعالى: “بل طبع الله عليها بكفرهم”…
1- A verb may imply the initiation [or the beginning] of the action, as is the case in Fussilat 41: 17, where Allah says: ‘As regard Thamud, We guided them, but they preferred blindness over guidance’ [the verb “hadaynaahum” i.e. ‘We guided them’ implies the initiation of the action as if to say: ‘We opened the door of guidance for them by sending Our messenger to them’] and as Allah says in Al-Insaan 76: 2: ‘We guided him [man] to the right path, [now it depends on him] whether he be thankful or unthankful’ [Once again the verb “hadaynaho” i.e. ‘We guided him’ implies the initiation of the action of guidance, that is to say: ‘We opened the door of guidance to the right path for him’].
2- A verb may imply the result of an action. as is the case in Ta Ha 20: 121, where Allah says: ‘Thus did Adam disobey his Lord and stray from the right path’. Adam’s disobedience was because he did what was against God’s directive, however he did what he did because he forgot, as the Qur’an says in Ta Ha 20: 115 that “We made a covenant with Adam, but he forgot and We found him lacking in steadfastness” [Thus the verb ‘`asaa‘ i.e. “he disobeyed” actually implies the result of Adam’s action due to his forgetting God’s directive. That is to say: Adam forgot what God directed him and thus did that, which resulted in disobeying God].
3- Similar to the second case [mentioned above], is that a verb, or an attributive noun, may imply an action that has taken place according to the permission or directive of the agent. As is said: ‘The king made the bridge’, whereas, actually the bridge was only made [by someone] according to the directive of the king. Of this category is what follows the pious or impious actions of man, as Allah has said in Al-Nisaa 4: 155 “But God has sealed their hearts due to their disobedience”, [that is to say God has allowed such to happen] …
If the above explanation is fully understood, it would then not be difficult to understand that the verb “nabadha” in the two referred verses is actually used in two slightly different implications. In the first verse (Al-Saaffaat 37: 145), the verb implies the initiation or the beginning of the action in that verb, while in the second verse (Al-Qalam 68: 49), it implies the continuity or the perpetuation or the permanence of the action. Thus, keeping this explanation in mind, the the second verse should actually have been translated in a slightly different manner. In my opinion, a more accurate translation of the second verse would be:
Had it not been for the favor of his Lord upon him, he would indeed have been left thrown away upon the barren shore, disgraced.
N. J. Dawood, who seems to be well aware of this usage of the verbs in the classical Arabic language, has translated Al-Saaffaat 37: 145 in the following words:
We threw him, gravely ill, upon a desolate shore.
and then has very accurately translated Al-Qalam 68: 49 as:
Had his Lord not bestowed on him His grace, he would have been abandoned in the open to be blamed by all.
This, in my opinion, is the correct translation of Al-Qalam 68: 49.
I am sure my explanation would be easily understood by all those who have a good understanding of the classical Arabic language and the style of the Divine literature — the Qur’an and parts of the Bible.
© Copyright January 2000. All Rights Reserved with the Author