A little act that goes a long way.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

One of the issues encountered when translating any text into another language is the extent to which dynamic or formal equivalence should be retained in the translation. One of the levels of connotation lost in translation relates to the semantic function of a word's morphology, and this is especially true when translating the Qur'an into English.

This concept can be further simplified and clarified by mentioning a simple rule in Arabic balaghah (rhetoric): the use of a noun indicates continuity and permanence, while the use of a verb indicates the occurence and regeneration of the act. This can be seen on some levels in English also; ponder the difference, for example, between huwa yata'allam هو يتعلم ('he is learning') and huwa muta'allim هو متعلم ('he is learned'). Both of them refer to the same essence, but the difference is that one connotes more permanence and stability than the other.

When viewed in the context of the Qur'an, the importance of such knowledge is emphasised due to the amount of meaning it conveys to the Muslim. For example, in Surah al-Anfal, Allaah mentions the following verse:

وَمَا كَانَ اللّهُ لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَأَنتَ فِيهِمْ وَمَا كَانَ اللّهُ مُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَهُمْ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ

which is translated into "And Allah would not punish them while you (Muhammad SAW) are amongst them, nor will He punish them while they seek (Allah's) Forgiveness."

Such a translation does not reflect the reality that Allaah articulated the concept of punishment using two different forms of word, one a noun (مُعَذِّبَهُمْ) and one a verb (لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ). Thus, a more correct [albeit more clumsy-sounding] translation would be, 'Allaah would not punish them while you are among them, nor would He be their punisher while they sought His Forgiveness."

And when viewed in light of the connotations of a verb and a noun, the underlying meaning of this verse suggests: As long as Muhammad (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) is among a people, Allaah will not punish them. But since he (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) will only be among them for a short time and will soon pass away, this guarantee against punishment is only temporary (لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ – verb). However, there is a way that the people can secure a continuous, permanent guarantee that Allaah will not be One who punishes them (مُعَذِّبَهُمْ – noun), and that is by seeking forgiveness from Him, even if they do not do seek the forgiveness constantly and permanently (يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ – verb).

And such is the mercy of Allaah, seen through grammar.


16 responses to “A little act that goes a long way.

  1. Assalaamu 3alaikum,

    Jazaaki Allahu khairan. You made me love Arabic grammar and morphology even more, and you have made me realize how little I know, and how important it is for me to keep learning.

    Please keep me in your du’a.

    Assalaamu 3alaikum.

  2. subhan Allah…from a layman’s perspective this stuff is amazing for me …masha Allah…this blog is one of the few sites I heart…

  3. Salamu’alaikum wa rahmatallah.

    Sidi, can it mean, “Allah will not be their punisher as long as they seek forgiveness”?

    Also could you kindly answer this, please:

    Today I was learning the different forms and the different meanings they convey(fa’ala faa’ala, af’ala). I was told that form 2(which i cant transliterate properly, the one with a shadda on the ‘ayn) was for intensity or causation so kasara originally meant “to break” but take it to form 2 and kassara now means “to smash” or alama – to know and allama to teach and cause to know. Both these words are connected, in meaning, although the form changes. But when I checked up the root of adhaab, adhaba(hinder, impede, handicap) – it wasnt really connected with its form 2 addhaba(to punish, afflict) – used in the quran. I guess what I’m trying to ask is: does the theory say that all words retain something of the original meaning regardless of what form it falls into?

    Jazakamullahu khairan,


  4. Wa ‘alaykum al-Salaam,

    Wa iyyaakum.

    Yusuf, I chose not to use the ‘as long as’ construction in the translation because in English it connotes that the second action has to be ongoing in order to prevent the first, and as soon as the action stops the first could happen. Yet this is not what is connoted by the verb/noun forms used. Rather, the forms suggest that Allaah will permanently not punish a people even if seeking His forgiveness is not a permanent, established trait among them.

    There is a general rule that all the derived forms retain some of the meaning of the original word. The reason for this is because there are sources and principles (usul) for Arabic grammar one just as there are for fiqh. One of these usul is Qiyaas – words are measured against other words and forms, and meanings are derived. However, as you noticed this does not apply to every root, reason being that Qiyaas is not the only asl, there are also others such as samaa’ (hearing something from the original speakers). Ibn Faaris even mentions in Mu’jam Maqaayees al-Lughah that the root ‘ayn-dhaal-baa’ is one such root. So you can take it as a majority rule, but bear in mind that it does not apply in every single instance.

  5. as-salamu ‘alaykum

    Ditto @ Billo. This has to be my favourite entry by far. All of the posts are excellent really, wa jazakum Allahu khair. But this one really captured my heart to reflect further. Alhamdulillah.

  6. Salamu’alaikum wa rahmatallah.

    Shukran katheeran akhi.


  7. Yaser Al-Hotaki

    Jazakallah Khairun Katheerun!

    This is one of my favorite aspects of Balagha, that Isms are not bounded by time, and Fi’ls are bound by time. My favorite example to illustrate this is the different situations Allah (Swt) uses “يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ” vs. “الْمُؤْمِنُون”. It’s a big topic but just like to point it out, one of my favorites! Keep up the good work!!

  8. Jazaa`kAllaahu khairaa. That was brilliant!

  9. Subhan’Allah, I remember when I was memorizing the ayah quoted, I wondered what the deep meaning was! Baarak Allahu feeki—in my field of study, these sorts of posts are real Iman boosters 🙂

  10. Wa iyyaakum.

    If you have any other verses that you want to know the linguistic points of, please ask and we will try to help in shaa’ Allaah.

  11. Assalaamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullaahi wa Barakaatoh

    My third (?) comment for the day as I’m going through the archives…sub7aanallaah…I didn’t want to miss out on any of the entries. May Allaah sub7aanahu wa ta’aalaa reward you for all of your efforts. Ameen. I have to “Ditto @ Billo” and Editor. We ask Allaah ta’aalaa to grant us “fiqh” in our deen and a deeper understanding of this beautiful language. Ameen.

    Baarakallaahu feekum.

  12. wa ‘alaykum al-Salaam wa rahmat Allaahi wa Barakaatuhu,

    Wa feekum.

  13. Very good site. Thank you!

  14. Excellent work…

    May allah reward you for this

  15. There are rules in translation but with every language there are exceptions to that rule. This provides a good example and some solid advice on Arabic to English translation.

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