Books or People?

Surah Al-Qasas (28:48)

In Surah al-Qasas, the author of the Qur'an responds to the unbelievers' rejection of his message. The first part of verse 48 is nearly identical in all translations, stating something like:

But (now) when the truth has come to them from Us, they say: "Why is he not given the like of what was given to Moses?"

However, during the preparations for the article, The Challenge of the Quran and Its Implications for the Muslim Corruption Charges, we discovered that in the second part of that verse there is considerable divergence in the different versions of the Qur'an:

Pickthall Yusuf Ali R. Khalifa Al-Hilali & Khan
... Did they not disbelieve in that which was given unto Moses of old? They say: Two magics that support each other; and they say: Lo! in both we are disbelievers. ... Do they not then reject (the Signs) which were formerly sent to Moses? They say: "Two kinds of sorcery, each assisting the other!" And they say: "For us, we reject all (such things)!" ... Did they not disbelieve in what was given to Moses in the past? They said, "Both (scriptures) are works of magic that copied one another." They also said, "We are disbelievers in both of them." ... Did they not disbelieve in that which was given to Musa (Moses) of old? They say: "Two kinds of magic [the Taurat (Torah) and the Qur'an], each helping the other!" And they say: "Verily! In both we are disbelievers."
Shakir Sher Ali M. Sarwar Nooruddin
... What! did they not disbelieve in what Musa was given before? They say: Two magicians backing up each other; and they say: Surely we are unbelievers in all. ... Did they not reject that which was given to Moses before? They said, ‘Aaron and Moses are but two sorcerers who back up each other.’ And they say, ‘We reject the claim of both.’ ... Did not they reject what Moses had brought to them saying, "These two, Moses and Aaron, are two magicians who support each other. We do not have any faith in them." ... Did the people (- the disbelievers) not reject before this that which was given to Moses? They say, ‘They (- Moses and Muhammad) are both frauds who support each other.’ They also say, ‘We reject (the claim of) each one of them.’
[ Information about the above used translations ]

The contradiction between the different English versions of the Qur'an is rather obvious. What is it? Did the unbelievers call the Torah and the Qur'an two magic BOOKS? Or did they call Moses and Aaron two magicians, PEOPLE who used magic?

Furthermore, there is not only the question whether it is about books or people, but the interpretation of which books or people seems not to be clear either. If we follow the option "books", then the context seems to demand that the Torah and the Qur'an are meant, though it is not explicitly stated. Al-Hilali and Khan's translation adds this interpretation as an interpolation into the text.

If we take the option "people", then the logic of the context seems to demand similarly that the two magicians are those who brought the Torah and Qur'an respectively, i.e. Moses and Muhammad. However, Sher Ali and Muhammad Sarwar instead write into their text that it is Moses and Aaron! This is particularly strange, since both of them continue in verse 49 by talking about the Torah and the Qur'an:

Pickthall Sher Ali M. Sarwar Nooruddin
Say (unto them, O Muhammad): Then bring a scripture from the presence of Allah that giveth clearer guidance than these two (that) I may follow it, if ye are truthful. Say, ‘Then bring a Book from ALLAH which is a better guide than these two books - the Torah and the Qur'an - that I may follow it, if you are truthful.’ (Muhammad), tell them, "Bring a Book if you are able to, from God better in its guidance than the Torah and the Quran; I shall follow it". Say, ‘If (Moses and Muhammad are both fraudulent and) you speak the truth, then bring a Book from Allah which is a better guide than these two (- the Torah and the Qur'an) that I may follow it.’

However, the confusion is not merely found in the English translations. In fact, the following options of interpretation are discussed in the Muslim commentaries on the Arabic Qur'an (tafsir):

Two MagicsTwo Magicians
Injeel and Quran
Torah and Furqan
Torah and Injeel
Torah and Quran
Moses and Aaron
Moses and Muhammad
Muhammad and Jesus

The reason is not that the Arabic text is merely ambiguous, but that there actually several different Arabic texts of the Qur'an. For this particular verse there exist two variant readings. (For other verses there exist many more different readings, e.g. Surah 19:19,25-26).

Most English translators follow the reading of Imam Hafs which is sihran tadhahara, meaning "two magics backing each other". Shakir, Sher Ali, Muhammad Sarwar, and Allamah Nooruddin appear to follow the reading of Imam Warsh which is sahiran tadhahara, meaning "two magicians backing each other".

For more information on the different canonized readings of the Arabic Qur'an see the article, The Different Arabic Versions of the Qur'an. For even more variants of the Arabic text see the section Textual Variants in the Qur'an.

Jochen Katz & Khaled

Appendix: The Documentation

After the above short summary outlining the problem, the following provides the detailed documentation regarding the variant readings and differing interpretations.

The two variant Readings and the Readers supporting them

The image to the left is taken from the book "Making Easy the Readings of What Has Been Sent Down" by Muhammad Fahd Khaaruun, The Collector of the 10 Readings (exact reference). It is a scan of the note in the margin commenting on Surah 28:48 and states this:

"sihran (two magics) [is the reading of Abu Bakr] ‘Asim, and Hamzah, and al-Kisa’i, and Khalaf [al-Bazzar]."

"sahiran (two magicians) [is the reading of] the rest, and Imam Warsh makes the "ra" small [i.e. pronounces the "r" softly]."

In this case, "the rest" means the six readers Ibn ‘Amir, Abu ‘Amr al-‘Ala’, Ibn Kathir, Nafi‘, Abu Ja‘far, and Ya‘qub al-Hashimi. To minimize the amount of text he has to write, the author of this book usually organizes his comments in such a way that he first mentions the reading supported by the smaller number of people and lists their names, and then refers to all the others (from among the ten canonical readers) that support the other reading as "the rest". (If you have not understood this last section, please refer to the article The Different Arabic Versions of the Qur'an where this book is introduced and sufficient background information is given.)

The different interpretations given in the Muslim commentaries and the authorities which support them

Except the very last one of the following quotations, all of them are taken from Ibn Kathir's commentary that can also be accessed online.

Mujahid, Sa‘id ibn Jubair, Abu Razin: Moses and Aaron

قال مجاهد : أمرت اليهود قريشا أن يقولوا لمحمد صلى الله عليه وسلم ذلك فقال الله " أولم يكفروا بما أوتي موسى من قبل قالوا سحران تظاهرا " قال يعني موسى وهارون صلى الله عليهما وسلم " تظاهرا " أي تعاونا وتناصرا وصدق كل منها الآخر وبهذا قال سعيد بن جبير وأبو رزين في قوله " ساحران " يعنون موسى وهارون وهذا قول جيد قوي والله أعلم

Ibn ‘Abbas: Moses and Muhammad

وقال مسلم بن يسار عن ابن عباس " قالوا ساحران تظاهرا " قال يعنون موسى ومحمدا صلى الله عليهما وسلم وهذا رواية الحسن البصري

Al-Hasan, Qutadah: Muhammad and Jesus

وقال الحسن وقتادة. يعني عيسى ومحمد صلى الله عليهما وسلم وهذا فيه بعد لأن عيسى لم يجر له ذكر ههنا والله أعلم

Ibn ‘Abbas, ‘Asim Al-Jundi, Al-Saddi, ‘Abd Al-Rahman ibn Zaid ibn Aslam: Torah and Qur'an

وأما من قرأ " سحران تظاهرا " فقال علي بن أبي طلحة والعوفي عن ابن عباس يعنون التوراة والقرآن وكذا قال عاصم الجندي والسدي وعبد الرحمن بن زيد بن أسلم قال
السدي : يعني صدق كل واحد منهما الآخر

‘Ikrimah: Torah and Injeel

وقال عكرمة : يعنون التوراة والإنجيل وهو رواية عن أبي زرعة واختاره ابن جرير.

Al-Dahhak, Qutadah: Injeel and Qur'an

وقال الضحاك وقتادة : الإنجيل والقرآن والله سبحانه وتعالى أعلم بالصواب

The final interpretation is found in the commentary of al-Qurtubi:

Al-Fara': Torah and Furqan

وقيل : التوراة والفرقان ; قاله الفراء

Even more strange observations can be made about this issue, but that may become the topic of another article in due time ...

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