By Sheikh al-Yaqoubi
The Holy Quran was revealed in Arabic and its original text is preserved and recited by Muslims today as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. However, its translations are human attempts to render its meanings into other languages; therefore, they are not sacred and could be prone to error.
The verse we are going to tackle in this article is, 60 of Surah 8, al-Anfāl. The translation of the verse, as in the most commonly used translation of the meaning of the Holy Quran, by Abdullah Yousuf Ali, (produced first in 1934, and revised by the Presidency of Islamic Researches, IFTA, Call and Guidance, published and Printed by the King Fahd Holy Quran Printing Complex in 1987), reads as follows,
“Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly.”
The original Arabic verse, as revealed, reads,
وَأَعِدُّوا لَهُم مَّا اسْتَطَعْتُم مِّن قُوَّةٍ وَمِن رِّبَاطِ الْخَيْلِ تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ عَدُوَّ اللَّهِ وَعَدُوَّكُمْ وَآخَرِينَ مِن دُونِهِمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَهُمُ اللَّهُ يَعْلَمُهُمْ ۚ وَمَا تُنفِقُوا مِن شَيْءٍ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ يُوَفَّ إِلَيْكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تُظْلَمُونَ
It is not our goal here to study the meanings of this verse or the legal rulings derived from it in Islamic Law. Rather, we will be looking at the translation of two words, rendered here as “to strike terror into [the hearts of]”.
However, before we do that, it is of paramount importance to mention the following seven facts:
- The translation of these two words is wrong and the original meaning in Arabic is “to deter the enemy etc”. This article attempts to prove this point.
- The verse is about the right of defence not attack. Aggression is forbidden. It instructs Muslims to take preventive measures to prevent the enemies’ attacks.
- Thus, the purpose of acquiring arms is not to use them, but rather to reach a goal that is to create awe and respect in international relations.
- Jihad is the obligation of the State not of individuals. It is done via military service in official armies.
- Individuals cannot declare war against a state, not even in their own homelands.
- The responsibility for preparing arms for self-defence, as ordered by in the above-mentioned verse, rests on the shoulders of the State.
- Islam does not sanction terror and there is no room for tolerating terrorists.
The words in question are تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ. They are rendered in the translation we quoted earlier as, “to strike terror into [the hearts of]”. Several other translations of the meanings of the Holy Quran provide similar or close suggestions. For instance, Ahmad Ali’s, (first published in 1984), says “that you may strike terror in the hearts of”. Majid Fakhri’s translation (first published in 1997 under the title ‘The Quran: a modern English version), says “to terrify thereby, etc.”. The Saheeh International translation (published in 1997) says “by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy”. Abdul Haleem’s (published in 2004) suggests “to frighten off God’s enemies and yours”. Two translations differ from the above. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall provides an alternative to “strike terror” that softens the force of the word but does not penetrate to its deep meaning. He suggests “that thereby you may dismay the enemy of Allah”. Finally, Muhsin Khan suggests “to threaten the enemy of Allah and your enemy”.
I believe these translations of the words تُرْهِبُونَ بِهِ are not precise and may lead people to believe that striking terror or terrifying enemies by the use of arms is legitimate. It is not. This verse is one of the major verses that speak of Jihad as the right of self-defence, not the right to attack. The verse itself was revealed after the battle of Badr, when Muslims were not prepared, so that they would prepare themselves in case they were attacked. (Abū Hayyān, v. 4, p. 511). But when Muslims read in its translation “to strike terror”, some may be led to believe that they should launch attacks and that their terror is justified.
The meaning of the word turhibūna تُرْهِبُونَ, as presented in Ibn Manz̄ūr’s Lisān al-Arab, and Ibn Fāris’ Maqāyīs al-Lughah, is a degree of fear coupled with awe. The root is rahiba رَهِبَ which is used in contrast with desire raghiba رَغِبَ . From the same root comes the word rāhib رَاهِب , a monk, a religious man who secludes himself from worldly life and devotes himself to God, because he inspires awe. The verb tarahhaba تَرَهَّبَ means to seclude oneself for a religious reason.
The word used in the verse, then, means “to instil fear inspired by awe and respect”, not “to terrify” or “to strike terror”. The verse, contrary to what may be understood from some English translations, does not speak of inflicting any harm on the enemy, but of preparing arms to prevent the enemy from attacking Muslims. Imam ibn Jarīr al-Tabari (d. 310 AH 923 CE) explains the meaning of the verse in a clear way when he says “to make, by your preparation of those, the enemy of Allah and your enemy amongst the polytheists afraid”. In Arabic, “(ترهبون به عدو الله وعدوكم) يقول: تخيفون بإعدادكم ذلك عدوَّ الله وعدوكم من المشركين”. (al-Tabari 10:21). It is interesting how he refers the pronoun in al-Jārr wal-majrūr بِهِ to the preparation of arms and horses not to their use. Al-Baydāwi (d. 685 AH 1286 CE) provided the same interpretation referring the pronoun in بِهِ to either the preparation or the capability mentioned in the verb اسْتَطَعْتُمْ. (al-Baydāwi 1: 483). This would mean ‘‘by your capability of having arms’’. So, according to this second meaning offered by al-Baydāwi, the ability to have arms is enough to instil fear in the enemy. This part bihī بِهِ which means “thereby” is missing in several of the translations quoted above, which could be misleading. This is very important because the preposition ب denotes the instrument by which this fear or awe is achieved. It is clear, as emphasised by the top exegetists (commentators on the Holy Quran), that the means are not fighting or using arms, but preparing them.
The goal is not to terrify or terrorise Muslim’s enemies, if that had been meant, the specific root for fear – خَوْف – would have been used: تُخِيفُونَ—“to frighten”—has the same number of letters as تُرْهِبُون, and it rhymes the same and comes with the same alliteration. The Quran is impeccable in its chosen words. We believe that the word تُرْهِبُون was chosen in order to point out the awe and respect that is needed in international relations to prevent enemies from launching attacks. Muslims can achieve this by acquiring the best arms without using them. This is what is known today as the principle of deterrence.
There are over fifteen different Arabic words denoting various degrees and types of fear, (Ibrahim al-Yāzaji, Nuj’at al-Rā‘id v. 2, p. 200), the most general of which is khouf “خَوْف” i.e., “fear”. The exgetists of the Quran used it not because rahab “رَهَب” and khouf “خَوْف” are synonyms, but because “خَوْف” includes all types of fear. This style of explanation is known as, “explaining the specific by use of the general” or in Arabic تَفْسِيرُ الْخَاصِّ بِالْعَامِّ.
“Terror”, as defined in “the Oxford English Dictionary”, is “the state of being terrified or greatly frightened; intense fear, fright or dread”. (The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn 1998). With “terror” being an extreme degree of fear, it is understandable how “terrorism” was coined, as the relationship is etymologically explained. However, the issue in Arabic is different. Modern Standard Arabic chose the infinitive form “irhāb” إِرْهَاب to denote terrorism. There no barrier to coining new terms in Arabic, or to giving new meanings to already known words. But the problem here is that several forms of the Arabic three-root verb “rahiba” رَهِبَ are used in classical Arabic to denote awe-type fear, on a level much different from what “irhāb / terrorism” means. Therefore, the Holy Quran absolutely cannot be interpreted according to the modern meanings and usages of its words—simply because it is not a modern text.
Based on the meaning of the Arabic word “turhibūna” تُرْهِبُون and its tafsiīr in the most reliable classical works, the best translation of the verse is “to thereby deter the enemy of Allah and your enemy” (i.e. from attacking you). The verse does not in any way order or sanction attacks against non-Muslims, not even enemies, let alone allies. It talks about preventive measures, not actions of terror.
The word “deter” is the best word fitting this context because it means to keep away from terror, not to strike terror. This is what its etymology suggests, de is the Latin prefix that means “away from”, and terrere means “to frighten”.
The oldest translation I have found to use “to strike terror” is George Sale’s, first published in 1734, which he claimed to have translated directly from Arabic, (I have in my library an 1880 edition published by Frederick Warne and Co., London and New York). He says “Therefore prepare against them what force ye are able, and troops of horse, whereby ye may strike a terror into the enemy of God”.
The error in the translation of this verse is also found in some other languages. For example, several French translations, including the famous Hamidullah translation, use afin d’effrayer which means “to frighten”. K. V. Zetterstéen’s Swedish translation (first published in 1917) renders it as förskräcka, “to terrify”. Muhammad Knut Bernstom (his translation was published first in 1998) proposes injagar skräck, which is a direct translation of “to strike terror”.
One translation that uses something similar to “deter” is the German Max Henning’s (first published in 1901) edited by Murad Wilfried Hofmann (published in 2001). He uses the word, abzuschrecken, which can be translated as “to deter” or “to scare away”, consisting of ab, “away, off” and schrecken, “to frighten“.
The verse we tackled here is an example of the errors found in the translations of the meanings of the Qur’an. The list is a long one to the point that I feel a new translation is needed. It is not about the style or the vocabulary, but about the subtleties of the Arabic language of which the Quran is the most eloquent text.
It remains to be repeated and emphasised that this verse does not speak to individuals. “Preparations” in this context are the responsibility of the State. Therefore, Muslims as individuals are not being addressed here. Jihad, in its best forms, is the obligation of the State. That is established now by the military service system in the national armies of Muslim countries. Jihad is not the obligation of individuals. Thus, even “deterrence”, as referred to in this verse, is the duty of the State. There is no room in Islam for terror. Terrorising people or entities in the name of God is against Islam. No sacred text can justify committing acts of terrorism.
Sheikh al-Yaqoubi is a widely respected religious scholar who also has a significant spiritual following worldwide. He is sought after by international media for his insights on current events in the Middle East and religious affairs in general.