Surah 36: Y.S., Part 3

English is a rather rubbish language, don’t you think? I love it, but it can be so difficult to explain at times. Today’s issue bumps into that. Not only am I trying to understand an odd grammatical situation in Arabic, but I have to combine it with the difficulty of translating into an odd grammatical situation in English. To put it simply, in what tense is the hypothetical? Specifically hypotheticals in the “if…then…” formulation?

  • If I wish, then I will.
  • If I wished, then I would.
  • If I wished, then I will.
  • If I wish, then I would.

What tense are those in? How many of those make sense, and why? If you, like me, have a bit of a hard time articulating those rules for English, then brace yourself for examining the equivalent in Arabic.

Translation Boundaries

In ayat 41-43, 66 and 67, God flexes his power to destroy and torment humankind within the context of earthly life. I had read these passages and processed them in comparison to the language abusers use to control the feelings of those they abuse: that they could do terrible things, and so their not doing so should inspire gratitude. This certainly comes naturally to me as a member of a culture that is hyper-aware of abuse in power relationships. However, both Muhammad Asad and Yusuf Ali took away very different meanings of those three threats than I did, or at least of the last two.

In the first set of ayat, we all agreed that it was God declaring that He could drown people traveling by boat.

Ali: “And a Sign for them is that We bore their race (through the flood) in the loaded Ark; And We have created for them similar (vessels) on which they ride. If it were Our Will We could drown them; then would there be no helper (to hear their cry) nor could they be delivered. Except by way of Mercy from Us and by way of (worldly) convenience (to serve them) for a time.”

Asad: “And [it ought to be] a sign for them that We bear their offspring [over the seas] in laden ships, and that we create for them things of a similar kind, and [that,] if such be our will, We may cause them to drown, with none to respond to their cry for help: and [then] they cannot be saved, unless it be by an act of mercy from Us and a grant for life for a [further span of] time.”

Surah Yaa Siin, Ayat 41-44 (underline mine)

The entirety of those underlined portions are written in present tense in the Arabic, which is why this ayah is read as applying more continually to the fates of all traveling by sea, and not confined to a reflection upon the story of the Flood. There is contemporary to the readers of the Quran a potential for God to will the destruction of a ship and drowning of a crew. It is a present and ongoing possibility. Yet a curious thing is that it is very hard to translate these passages into present tense English, because for such hypothetical situations English is reliant upon the auxiliary modal verbs “can/could, may/might, will/would, shall/should,” which have no equivalent counterpart in Arabic. Those modal verbs are also less time-communicative. You can use their officially “past tense” forms for future tense speculation…You could use their officially “past tense” forms for future tense speculation.

The ways that English expresses hypothetical situations is often bound by conventions of tense-matching and modal verbs. Consider the four examples in my introduction: the ones you disqualified were probably those in which the “if” and “then” clauses were in opposite tenses. If you permitted the last one, then it was probably a result of recognizing that the phrase “then I would” contained a modal verb that was expressing possibility and not time-bound action. It is possible to express a hypothetical in present tense, but our English default is most likely to express such in the past tense. Though “I can do it if I want to,” is a grammatically valid sentence, we would more likely express the sentiment through the words, “I could do it if I wanted to.” I doubt we’re deliberate about it, but putting things in the past tense tends to communicate immovability. Sure, it’s possible that I could do a thing, but my lack of desire is fixed, as all things in the past are. Voicing possibility in the present suggests my wants can change.

These conventions in English make it difficult to discuss the source of my difference of opinions on the meanings of ayat 66-67, which I perceived as abusive language, in contrast to the interpretations and exegesis of Ali and Asad.

Ali: “If it had been Our Will We could surely have blotted out their eyes; then should they have run about groping for the Path but how could they have seen? (4012)
“And if it had been Our Will We could have transformed them (to remain) in their places: then should they have been unable to move about nor could they have returned (after error).” (4013)

Asad: “Now had it been our will [that men should not be able to discern right and wrong], We could surely have deprived them of their sight (33) so that they would stray forever from the [right] way: for how could they have had insight [into what is true]?(34)
“And had it been Out will [that they should not be free to choose between right and wrong], We could surely have given them a different nature(35) [and created them as being rooted] in their places, so that they would not be able to move forward, and could not turn back.”(36)

Surah Yaa Siin, ayat 66-67

As you can see, they’ve translated the ayat with past-tense verbs, which is admittedly the most comfortable option in English. Asad also has greatly inserted his own exegesis into the text, with the original wording marginalized in a footnote.

If you read the footnotes associated with these passages, you’ll find that both Ali and Asad understand these ayat to reflect upon hypothetical choices God could have made in the creation of mankind: he could have denied humanity Free Will through either intellectual or physical deficiency. Trees have no Free Will, because they were not gifted with these capabilities, and aren’t you glad that you’re not like a tree? So instead of threats, both of these scholars read these passages as reflections upon the gifts that empower mankind to have Free Will. They interpret the passages to be impressing upon mankind gratitude, and teaching them of their responsibility as indicated by their created natures.

But I don’t agree with this translation or opinion, and it comes down to the Arabic construction of the sentences.

If… Then…

So, these ayat follow a formulaic sentence structure, in which a first clause proposes a condition and then another clause answers with the result, “If… then…” Now, I’m going to have to leave ayat 41-44 behind at this point because it used a different formula and vocabulary than ayat 66, 67. (Plus, there wasn’t a disagreement between myself and the commentators for me to have to explore and explain.)

The word for “if” in these ayat is law (لَوْ). I tried looking through free online resources for explanations of the word law, especially since there are two other “if” words available in Arabic. Free grammatical explanations on the internet are spotty, but I did find one chapter in the reputable book All the Arabic You Never Learned the First Time which explained law is used to express a condition that is contrary to reality. The response is always in past tense, designated with either an affirmative prefix la- (لَـ) to mean “verily” or the negative maa (ما) to mean “not.” But even though that explanation seemed strong, I wanted to be sure of how the Quran used the word law. So I did a word search for all instances of the word in the Quran, and then narrowed the results to only reflect those instances that were used for the “if…then…” sentence formulation. Here is a table of my results:

I paid specific attention to the tense in each clause, particularly the conditional. By far and wide the most frequent was that the conditional clause was written in past tense, whether the near past or the very distant past, alternate present that is based in past events, or a pure hypothetical alternate reality. There are a few instances where the “if” clause is written in present tense, and in my table I highlighted those in yellow. The grey highlights are cases where there was no subject verb. While I think those are implied to be in present tense, it’s also one of those things that might have its own set of grammatical rules that I don’t want to speak too confidently on. We usually insert an “is” into those sentences in English translations. Particularly fuzzy in my mind are the rules for the sentences where a preposition functions more verb-like. Possession in Arabic is frequently indicated with prepositions rather than verbs, so clauses that are along the lines of “if they possessed all the things in the heavens and earth…” are literally built “if to/at them all the things in the heaven and earth…” So while I believe they are implied to be in present-tense, I also don’t want to hang any of my claims upon them.

Accurate to the grammatical rules explained by All the Arabic…, the result clause always appeared in the past tense, with the exception of one instance where the result breaks formula and follows sequentially with a literal “then”, and two other instances where the result clause is implied but not provided. Why does the response always appear in past tense? I have no formal rules to explain this, but can make a guess. In Arabic, the past tense is the default, “perfect,” form of a word. While in English we usually conjugate the present form of a verb to make it into the past tense (usually by adding -ed), in Arabic it is the past tense that must be conjugated to an “imperfect” present tense form. So maybe using the past tense is also the way of presenting the purest meaning of the words, their timeless sense.(Again, emphasis on this being pure speculation.)

What has this to do with ayat 66 and 67? Their conditional clauses are both in the present tense. They both begin with the rare instance of “If We will.” This gets hidden by the tendency of the translators to render all of the conditional clauses to English in past tense. I don’t believe this is them tricking us, but since the result clauses are in the past tense, English norms would seem to push the condition that way too. However, since in the Arabic formula it is only the conditional clause that gets variety, I’m going to deduce that it is only the tense of the conditional clause that matters. That these ayat begin with present tense conditions –and furthermore that this is a rare thing in the Quran– does suggest that they are expressing something different than the vast majority of other hypotheticals. You could describe the other hypothetical sentences as examinations of an alternate reality derived from a different decision made in the past. But when you look at the instances of present tense conditionals in the Quran, they are all about potential realities rooted in contemporary decisions. Let me translate a sample of them in which I preserve the present tense of the conditional and adjust the response:

  • When disbelievers hear the Quran, they rebut it with the declaration that they’ve heard it before, and that “if we wish, verily we could say something similar.”
  • When the believers were called to fighting and defense, the hypocrites responded to the call with “if we know of a fight, verily we would follow you all.”
  • The hypocrites are cowards of such scale that “if they find a refuge or caves or a haven, verily they would turn to it.”
  • God disavows the advice of disbelievers to Muhammad by declaring “if he obeys you all in much of the matter, verily you would all flounder.”

These are statements of contemporary decisions, not ones based in the past. It’s hard to express that in English, especially since the past tense is much more natural to us in these kinds of sentences. But since no translators have made this choice, is it possible that I just don’t know enough grammar to understand these sentences? Well, there actually is one translator in my bank of options who preserves the present-tense nature of the clauses, and thus also interprets these ayat as active threats and not alternate realities based in choices from the deep past. Muhammad Taqi Usmani translates these ayat as follows:

“If We so will, We would wipe out their eyes (right here in this world), and they would be racing towards the way, but how would they see?
And If We so will, We would disfigure them at their places, and they would not be able to move, nor would they return.”

Mufti Taqi Usmani: Surah Yaa Siin, 66-67

But God is Timeless

So here is where one has to ask, “does tense really matter when spoken by a God who exists outside of time?” For God, there is no such thing as a present or a past, so why pay attention to the tense of the words He uses to express Himself temporally? After all, there are four instances of God declaring it within His power to guide all mankind as one community: three with His will expressed in the past tense (1,2,3) and one with it in the present tense. Since the same sentiment is expressed in both present and past will, doesn’t that speak to the temporality being irrelevant?

Well, observance of tense is theologically useful. How does a timeless God interact with a temporal world? The phrase “if He/We willed…” speaks to Predestination, the idea that the way things are or have been already determined. God’s will was exerted upon the world in the choices that He made and enacted at the very point of creation, and we are all just living through the inevitable experiences resulting from things that came before. In general, I find the Quran is on the side of Predestination. But does Predestination mean that God has, upon setting creation in motion, not participated in it any further? The phrase “if He/We [so] will…” speaks to a God who is active within the bounds of time, and who intervenes and participates in the unfolding of events. The Quran believes in miracles, after all, and sees God not as a passive spectator to the world but an active part of its story. God has set up a clockwork world, but He also reserves the power to interrupt/redirect that clockwork. Examining the cases in which God does so provides understanding of what direction God keeps orienting His clockwork towards. Examining the ways in which He does not intervene can also reflect this.

Examining the ways in which God imagines intervening also has the possibility to reflect upon His character. As I reflected in Surah al-Faṭir, if these words were understood as the reflections of a man exploring the power of God and the ways that God uses or could use that power, this would be an easier passage to sympathize with. But since it is the imagination of God being expressed in what’s meant to be understood as the voice of God there is much more concern about what His character must be like to imagine such, let alone voice it. Though still, the reigning emphasis of this passage is that following through with these imaginings is not in God’s will.

The Verbs

Another reason in the text that would keep me from accepting Ali and Asad’s exegesis –which for a reminder is that these ayat are are exploring alternate choices God could have made in creation– is the choice of verbs used in the result clauses. The operative word in ayah 66 is ṭamas, “efface.” According to Lane’s Lexicon (طمس, pg 1880-1881), this refers to the removal of a marking through destruction. All usages of this word in the Quran accord with this meaning, with ṭamas always appearing in the traumatic sequence of punishments. So this is an act of “de-creation,” an act of undoing. The operative word in ayah 67 is masakh, “deform/mutate.” Of this Lane (مسخ, pg 2715) says the word means transforming into a lesser, “worse, or more foul” state. Again, it is not creation, but a “de-creation.” This is the only instance of masakh in the Quran, so it is only in the context of this verse that we can feel secure we’re understanding its original meaning correctly. The context of both the verse before and after is the activity of de-creation.

This pattern of changing the state of something to a meaner form is consistent with the sentiment of ayah 68, and indeed 68 should be read as a continuation. Ayah 68 reminds people that if God lets them age, God does in fact reverse their creation. Age is contextually treated as a humbling, a degradation of one’s body and capabilities. So in a sense, ayat 66-67 teach that –if He wills– God could debase humankind. If we accept the formal rules posited by All the Arabic, the use of law indicates that this hypothetical is contrary to reality and it is not in God’s will to intervene to maim and deform mankind in these ways. However, ayah 68 follows through and reveals that God actually does actively do this (again, present tense verbs) through the process of aging. So while God doesn’t will the sudden and violent degradation of mankind, He does will their slow and consuming degradation. There’s not actually that much mercy here.

These ayat combined are utilizing the emotions of body horror to shock listeners into fear and unease. The mercy offered is not that God doesn’t torment humankind –though He could do it at a more potent level– but that He offers a route to immortality: submission and the Resurrection.

Good for Muslims

So, here again is where I need to make the divide between being disturbed by the Quran and being disturbed by Islam. The Quran is not Islam. Islam is a product of Muslims, their history, their thoughts. Though I come away from this particular analysis with a pretty reinforced distaste for the Quran’s mechanisms of rhetoric, I must admit that I come away with a pretty positive view of the Muslims writing these commentaries. Consider how Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad have taken a mean-spirited message and found in it an enriching and positive meaning. Consider that they do this not based on the evidence inherent in the text, but a broader theological framework which demands them to perceive God as merciful, just, and kind. I’ll admit that while I found the vindication of agreement in Usmani’s translation, I also couldn’t help but feel a little “yikes!” at the fact that he agreed with me too. I know nothing of Usmani’s theology, personality, or history, and I do believe that his translation is much more authentic to the meaning of the text. I’m willing to wager that his rendering is a product of accuracy, and not a mean spirit. The mean spirit is in the words themselves. But for Ali and Asad, it was not consistent or permissible to see that mean spirit in the text. So they drew upon the broader theology of predestination, free will, and the goodness and competence of God to impose a different sentiment upon the text. It is motivated cognition, and the motivation is a desire for goodness. And ironically, this can also be traced to the Quran. As I’ve said elsewhere, the Quran is harsh and mean to those who don’t believe its claims, but mostly gentle and encouraging to those who do. The soul of the community that the Quran seeks to form is one based on justice at least, mercy at best. It requires reshaping of oneself into a charitable, humble, patient being. So that believers should turn upon the Quran with charity, patience, and humility is in fact a product of the Quran’s own doing.

This again is the divide the Quran creates in is listeners. I do not believe in the Quran, even though I agree with the virtues of justice, charity, humility, and piety. Because I do not believe in the Quran, I am not invested in reconciling it to its own values. The Quran does not practice what it preaches, I find it mean-spirited and deliberately divisive, and so this only reinforces why I do not believe in it. Someone who does believe in the Quran, however, is very invested in finding the rhetoric of the Quran to be consistent with the values that it promotes. They handle the hardness of the Quran with the same charity, humility, and patience that it taught them. This may be infuriating to those of us who feel very attacked by those words and upset at its inconsistency, but it also is coming from the same bank of values that I uphold, and that needs to be recognized in Muslims.

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