Who are those "without knowledge"?

Surah An-Nahl (16:25)

Yusuf Ali M. Asad Pickthall Shakir
Let them bear, on the Day of Judgment, their own burdens in full, and also (something) of the burdens of those without knowledge, whom they misled. Alas, how grievous the burdens they will bear! Hence, on Resurrection Day they shall bear the full weight of their own burdens, as well as some of the burdens of those ignorant ones whom they have led astray: oh, how evil the load with which they shall be burdened! That they may bear their burdens undiminished on the Day of Resurrection, with somewhat of the burdens of those whom they mislead without knowledge. Ah! evil is that which they bear! That they may bear their burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge; now surely evil is what they bear.

This verse is interesting mainly for the reason that it contradicts the oft-repeated quranic principle that nobody can bear or shall bear the burden of another (cf. 6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 17:15; 53:38). For a detailed discussion of this contradiction, consult these articles: [1], [2], [3].

Surah 16:25 speaks of two groups of people. The first is committing a certain sin, and they also mislead or seduce another group of people to follow them and to commit the same sin. When not reading carefully, one may overlook that in Pickthall's and Shakir's translation the attribute "without knowledge" belongs to the subject of the sentence, i.e. those who are leading astray other people do so "without knowledge". Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad, on the other hand, render this verse as if "without knowledge" belongs to the object, i.e. those who have been led astray.

WHO is thought to be without knowledge: (a) those who are misleading others, or (b) those who are being misled by them? The different English versions of the Qur'an clearly contradict each other. What does the Qur'an really say here? Looking at it merely from the viewpoint of Arabic grammar, both interpretations are possible. The Arabic is ambiguous, the Qur'an is simply unclear at this point, and the translators had to decide to render it one way or the other in English.

Why is this question even relevant? Assume, for example, that the issue is the sin of idolatry, or call it "religious conviction". Even those who worship false gods are usually convinced that those are the true god(s). Most people in a false religion are not trying to convince others to join their religion despite the fact that they know it is false. On the contrary, they themselves are convinced they are following the right religion, and they may be able to mislead others to believe the same way, precisely because of their deep personal conviction of its truth.

For example, there are Muslims and Christians who are both fully devoted to their faith and convinced that their faith is true. Both may have been able to persuade other people to believe as they do, and to convert to Islam or Christianity. These two religions are fundamentally opposed to each other. They cannot both be true. Does Surah 16:25 threaten punishment to those who have in good conscience invited others to join their faith (i.e. to follow the truth) simply because they were wrong in their conviction? Many would not like this conclusion, and thoughts like these may have led Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad to translate otherwise.

On the other hand, one could argue that the term "misleading" already implies that the victim (who was led astray) was without knowledge. If he had known what was right and wrong, he would not have been "led astray", but would have actively chosen to go this way in the full knowledge that it was wrong. Thus, adding the phrase "without knowledge" in reference to the group that was led astray would simply be redundant, and not particularly eloquent. This is, however, not a sufficient basis for a decision, since the Qur'an is oftentimes redundant and repetitive.

It is certainly expected and justified that those who deliberately mislead others, i.e. knowing that they are promoting falsehood, should be punished. What about those who promote something that is wrong but who believe it to be true and valuable? They are not aware of doing something wrong. Rather, they are doing it in good conscience. Should they be punished for it?

Again, that those who are misled are "without knowledge" is self-evident. The question is whether the Qur'an speaks here about the punishment of such people who mislead others and KNOW they are misleading them into following something that is wrong (like merchants who sell their customers a product of little value for a high price for their own benefit), or does Surah 16:25 speak about people who are subjectively honest and convinced to follow the truth, and who seek to persuade others as well, but who are objectively wrong and therefore called "without knowledge".

There are a number of similar passages in the Qur'an where the expressions "misleading" and "without knowledge" are used together:

Some men there are who buy diverting talk to lead astray from the way of God without knowledge, and to take it in mockery; those -- there awaits them a humbling chastisement. 31:6 Arberry

It is He who produces gardens trellised, and untrellised, palm-trees, and crops diverse in produce, olives, pomegranates, like each to each, and each unlike to each. Eat of their fruits when they fructify, and pay the due thereof on the day of its harvest; and be not prodigal; God loves not the prodigal. And of the cattle, for burthen [i.e. for the bearing of burdens] and for slaughter, eat of what God has provided you; and follow not the steps of Satan; he is a manifest foe to you. Eight couples: two of sheep, of goats two. Say: 'Is it the two males He has forbidden or the two females? Or what the wombs of the two females contain? Tell me with knowledge, if you speak truly.' Of camels two, of oxen two. Say: 'Is it the two males He has forbidden or the two females? Or what the wombs of the two females contain? Or were you witnesses when God charged you with this? Then who does greater evil than he who forges against God a lie, in order that he may lead mankind astray without any knowledge? Surely God guides not the people of the evildoers.' 6:142-145 Arberry

Perfect are the words of thy Lord in truthfulness and justice; no man can change His words; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing. If thou obeyest the most part of those on earth they will lead thee astray from the path of God; they follow only surmise, merely conjecturing. Thy Lord knows very well who goes astray from His path; He knows very well the right-guided. Eat of that over which God's Name has been mentioned, if you believe in His signs. How is it with you, that you do not eat of that over which God's Name has been mentioned, seeing that He has distinguished for you that He has forbidden you, unless you are constrained to it? But surely, many lead astray by their caprices, without any knowledge; thy Lord knows very well the transgressors. S. 6:117-120 Arberry

Conclusion: Although those who are led astray are certainly to be considered ignorant as well, in all the above passages it is those who are actively leading astray who are said to be "without knowledge". This makes ift highly probable that this expression refers also in 16:25 to the subject and not the object.

What, then, is the message of Surah 16:25 in its context? Let's look at verses 10 to 25:

10 He it is Who sends down water from the cloud for you; it gives drink, and by it (grow) the trees upon which you pasture. 11 He causes to grow for you thereby herbage, and the olives, and the palm trees, and the grapes, and of all the fruits; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who reflect. 12 And He has made subservient for you the night and the day and the sun and the moon, and the stars are made subservient by His commandment; most surely there are signs in this for a people who ponder; 13 And what He has created in the earth of varied hues most surely there is a sign in this for a people who are mindful. 14 And He it is Who has made the sea subservient that you may eat fresh flesh from it and bring forth from it ornaments which you wear, and you see the ships cleaving through it, and that you might seek of His bounty and that you may give thanks. 15 And He has cast great mountains in the earth lest it might be convulsed with you, and rivers and roads that you may go aright, 16 And landmarks; and by the stars they find the right way. 17 Is He then Who creates like him who does not create? Do you not then mind? 18 And if you would count Allah's favors, you will not be able to number them; most surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. 19 And Allah knows what you conceal and what you do openly. 20 And those whom they call on besides Allah have not created anything while they are themselves created; 21 Dead (are they), not living, and they know not when they shall be raised. 22 Your God is one God; so (as for) those who do not believe in the hereafter, their hearts are ignorant and they are proud. 23 Truly Allah knows what they hide and what they manifest; surely He does not love the proud. 24 And when it is said to them, what is it that your Lord has revealed? They say: Stories of the ancients; 25 That they may bear their burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge; now surely evil is what they bear.

The thrust of the warning to the unbelievers is clear: Even if you do not believe our message, you should have known the truth, because you have been informed. You have no excuse, since the evidence is all around around you, if only you would reflect on it. Your problem is not that you have not been informed, but that you are too proud and are rejecting the message of God. The reality of creation around you is sufficient evidence that points to the one true God (verses 10-21). In addition, you have even received the plain message of God (through Muhammad), and you are rejecting it not only for yourself, you are even leading others astray (verses 22-25) by dismissing it as myths (stories of the ancients).

We see that there was a certain group of people who did not believe in Muhammad's message and actively opposed his preaching. In particular, they charged Muhammad with trying to pass off myths as revelation from God (v. 24). The above passage is simply an expression of Muhammad's anger at those who opposed him. He calls them dishonest (v. 19: what you conceal, v. 23: what you hide), ignorant, proud (v. 22), and "without knowledge" (v. 25). Moreover, instead of taking up their reason to reject his message, and presenting a good argument in order to refute the critique, the author of the Qur'an merely threatens them with an extra measure of punishment (v. 25)!

[ We carefully discuss the Muslim objections against the Bible and Christian doctrine and do our best to give detailed reasons for our faith. If we merely questioned the moral and intellectual integrity of those who criticize us, or even threaten those who dare to do so, our readers would certainly not be impressed, and rightfully so! Neither am I impressed with the answer of the Qur'an to this objection. ]

Let me illustrate the issue with some personal experiences: Many Muslims have complimented me on my knowledge of Islam, and some combined their honest admiration with the question: "I do not understand why you are not a Muslim since you know so much about Islam". Some have even acknowledged that I know much more about Islam than they do. This mostly happens in private one-on-one conversations about faith issues. On the other hand, nearly every day we get angry emails in response to our articles on Answering Islam in which Muslims tell us that we are completely ignorant of Islam. How dare you speak about Islam if you do not know anything about it! And some even add threats about punishment for what we do.

The reaction of this second group is mirroring what we see in the Qur'an. If somebody presents valid reasons why he does not believe in Islam, he is simply insulted as being ignorant and threatened with consequences.

I am not aware that the author of the Qur'an considers honest disagreement with his message a possibility. Those who oppose Islam are automatically considered obstinate, proud, dishonest, etc. That there may actually exist good reasons to reject the Qur'an as revelation from God and Muhammad as a true prophet is not only beyond the grasp of many Muslims today, but it was already beyond the imagination of Muhammad.

Thus, verse 25 is simply used as an extra warning against those who oppose Muhammad: If you are trying to keep others away from accepting Islam (i.e. leading them astray), then your punishment will be even worse. You will not only be punished for your own unbelief, but will also have to bear (part of) the punishment of those whom you prevented to join Islam. A careful examination of the context suggests that the phrase "without knowledge" is used mainly as an insult against those who oppose Islam and has little to do with the level of information they possess. On the contrary, the passage makes it clear that they have already been sufficiently informed and will not be able to appeal to "lack of knowledge" on Judgment Day.

However, I refuse to be intimidated by threats of consequences. God has given me a rational mind, and I will continue to honor him by using it. This includes the careful examination of reasons for and against the validity of Islam, the authenticity of the Qur'an as a revelation of God, and the claims of Muhammad to be a prophet from God.

In fact, it is the clear command of God that we should not simply believe everyone who comes to us with the claim to be a prophet. In the Old Testament as well as the New Testament we are warned of the appearance of false prophets, and commanded to "test the prophets" whether they are genuine messengers of God or imposters. This issue is discussed in considerable detail in the articles Testing Muhammad's Prophecy, Muhammad's False Prophecies, etc.

Dozens of articles in the section "Sources of the Qur'an" present strong evidence that large parts of the Qur'an consist indeed of myths and legends. In Surah 16:24, the Qur'an testifies to the fact that this was already recognized by many of Muhammad's contemporaries. I invite our readers to set aside their prejudices, honestly investigate the evidence, and come to their own conclusions.

Jochen Katz

P.S. Imam Qurtubi states in his commentary on Surah 16:25 of the Qur'an regarding the phrase "without knowledge":

Meaning that they lead people astray without being aware of the transgressions they are heaping (on themselves); for had they known, they would not have lead others astray.

Thus Qurtubi agrees with my conclusion that "without knowledge" refers to the subject of the sentence, but he interprets it not as being polemical. He reads it as refering to a lack of knowledge about their future punishment. However, the whole passage is an address to the unbelievers that they should believe in Allah, and in the Qur'an which has been preached to them. Their answer is "NO, we will not believe it", because it appears to be little more than a collection of ancient myths. Calling them, therefore, "without knowledge" seems to address their current (and allegedly wrong) convictions about the Qur'an, not their awareness of future punishment.

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