Educating Nina Shea—What Classical and Modern Koranic Commentaries Teach About Koran 1:7

Nina Shea protests too much, and has studied too little.

The Hilali-Khan “Saudi” translation of Koran 1:7—which Shea suggests somehow “distorts” the understanding of this verse—includes a detailed justification—ignored by Shea—of its references to the Jews as those who have engendered Allah’s anger, and the Christians as the ones who have gone astray. Indeed, the Hilali-Khan translation comports both with the canonical hadith interpretation of these verses, and classical and modern Koranic commentary (“tafir”) glosses by the leading luminaries of this discipline in Islam. Shea’s complete omission of this context, perhaps due to her well-intentioned effort to focus laser-like on “Saudi perfidy,” reflects a lack of basic overall understanding of the Islamic canon which, in the end, is unacceptable.

As the Hilali-Khan translation explains on p. 12, citing a hadith quoted by two of the six canonical hadith collections, at-Timirdhi and Abu Dawud,

“Narrated Adi bin Hatim: I asked Allah’s Messenger [i.e., Muhammad] about the statement of Allah ‘not (the way) of those who earned Your [Allah’s] Anger,’ he replied: ‘They are the Jews.” And ‘not those who went astray,’ he [Muhammad] replied: ‘The Christians, and they are the ones who went astray.’ ”

What follows are seminal, classic commentaries on Koran 1:7,  in chronological order, that validate the well-justified, mainstream interpretation of Koran 1:7 presented by Hilali-Khan.

Al-Tabari (838-923) was an historian, theologian and jurisconsult. He also authored an early, monumental commentary on the Koran. To establish that those who have incurred Allah’s wrath, are those mentioned in the (Antisemitic) Koranic verse 5:60, Tabari cites Traditions (i.e., hadith) which name the Jews as those with whom God is angry. Tabari repeats this reasoning to prove that the people mentioned in Koran 5:77 are those described as astray in Koran 1:7—he cites Traditions which name the Christians as those astray. Al-Qurtubi’s (d. 1273) great classical commentary “The Legal Rulings of the Koran,” reiterates Tabari’s view, which simultaneously re-affirms the basis for the Hilali-Khan translation of Koran 1:7,  stating plainly,

…[T]hose with anger on them are the Jews and the misguided are the Christians. That was explained by the Prophet, my Allah bless him and grant him peace, in the hadith of Adi ibn Hatim and the story of how he became a Muslims transmitted by Abu Dawud and at-Timirdhi in his Collection [of hadith]. The explanation is also attested to by the Almighty [i.e., elsewhere in the Koran] who says about the Jews, ‘They brought down anger from Allah upon themselves’ ([Koran] 2:61, 3:112) and He [Allah] says, ‘Allah is angry with them’ (48:6) He says about the Christians that they, ‘were misguided previously and have misguided many others, and are far from the right way.’ (5:77)

Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) was one of the best-known historians and traditionalists of Syria during the reign of the Bahri Mamluks, compiling an important history of Islam, as well as a Koranic commentary which foreshadows in its style, the commentary of Al-Suyuti (i.e., Tafsir al-Jalalyan).  Ibn Kathir’s commentary, once again references Koranic verses 5:60 and 5:77,  and the same hadith invoking ibn Hatim, explaining the meaning of verse 1:7, as follows:

These two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them. … the Jews abandoned practicing the religion, while the Christians lost the true knowledge. This is why ‘anger’ descended upon the Jews, while being described as ‘led astray’ is more appropriate of the Christians. … We should also mention that both the Christians and the Jews have earned the anger and are led astray, but the anger is one of the attributes more particular of the Jews. Allah said about the Jews, ‘Those (Jews) who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath’ (Sura 5:60). The attribute that the Christians deserve most is that of being led astray, just as Allah said about them, ‘Who went astray before and who misled many, and strayed (themselves) from the right path’ (Sura 5:77).

Ibn Kathir further cites a hadith in which Muhammad clarified the meaning of this sura:

Imam Ahmad recorded that ‘Adi bin Hatim said, … he [Muhammad] said: ‘Those who have earned the anger are the Jews and those who are led astray are the Christians.’

The verse from Sura 5 which Ibn Kathir refers to concerning Jews is:

Shall I tell you of a recompense with Allah, worse than that? Whomsoever Allah has cursed, and with whom He is wroth, and made some of them apes and swine, and worshippers of idols – they are worse situated, and have gone further astray from the right way. (Sura 5:60)

And the verse concerning Christians:

People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, other than the truth, and follow not the caprices of a people who went astray before, and led astray many, and now again have gone astray from the right way. (Sura 5:77)

Al-Suyuti (1445-1505) was born in Cairo, where his father taught Shaf’i law and acted as a substitute kadi. He is recognized as the most prolific author in the realm of Islamic literature. A brilliant multidisciplinary scholar, Al-Suyuti was a learned jurist, historian, and biographer. Among his many scholarly contributions are about twenty works of Koranic studies, including seminal Koranic commentaries (Tafsir). Tafsir al-Jalalayn, meaning “The Commentary of the Two Jalals,” is named after its two authors, Al-Suyuti, and his mentor Jalalu’d-Din al-Mahalli (1389-1459), who wrote the initial half of this classic work. Al-Suyuti completed Tafsir al-Jalalayn following al-Mahalli’s death. These apt comments heralded the appearance of a 1378 pp. English translation of Tafsir al-Jalalayn in 2008 by an accomplished contemporary Arabic to English translator:

The publication of this book is a landmark in the history of Islamic literature in English. With this work, for the first time, a complete translation of one of the great classical commentaries on the Holy Qur’an becomes available to English-speaking readers. For half a millennium Tafsir al-Jalalayn has been considered the essential first step in the study of the meanings of the Qur’an by teachers and students throughout the Islamic world Although it is among the shortest and simplest .of the ‘complete commentaries, it is at the same time both wide-ranging and profound. This translation gives non-Arabic speakers access to one of the seminal works of classical tafsir literature. It is hoped that it will prove a valuable aid to the correct understanding of the Qur’anic Revelation throughout the English-speaking world.

Aisha Abdurrahman at Tarjumana Bewley is one today’s most prolific translators of classical Arabic work into English. Aisha Bewley not only understands Arabic but she is also aware of the basic meanings and nature of teachings and history of Islam. Her knowledge is born of experience and direct transmission, not merely academic theory and learning by rote. For more than twenty-five years she has been concerned with making the contents of many classical works in Arabic more Accessible to English-speaking readers for the first time…

As Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains, Muslims are told in Koran 1:6, the verse preceding Koran 1:7,

Guide us on the straight path” means, direct us to it.

The commentary continues,

It is followed by its appositive [in verse 7], “…the Path of those You have blessed,” with guidance, “not of those with anger on them,” who are the Jews, “nor of the misguided,”who are the Christians. The grammatical structure here shows that those who are guided are not the Jews or the Christians. Allah Almighty knows best what is correct, and to Him is the return and the homecoming. May Allah bless our Master Muhammad and His family and Companions and grant them abundant peace always and forever. Allah is enough for us and the best Protector. There is no strength nor power except by Allah, the High, the Immense.

Lastly, Ma’ariful Qur’an, a definitive modern Koranic commentary, was written by Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi (1898-1976), former Grand Mufti of (pre-Partition) India, and founder of Darul Ulum Karachi. Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi taught for twenty-seven years until 1943. During this period, approximately thirty thousand students from all over the world experienced his discourses. He also served as the Grand Mufti of India prior to the Partition of India. After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Mufti Muhammad Shafi moved to Karachi, where he established Darul Ulum Karachi in 1950. After only a few months, it had more than two thousand students. He also wrote over  three hundred books. In addition to his literary works, Mufti Muhammad Shafi   broadcasted tafsir of the Koran on Radio Pakistan for a number of years. This modern Koranic exegesis comports with the classical commentaries on verse 1:7, highlighting the Koran’s strident Antisemitism, and accompanying Christianophobia:

Those who have incurred Allah’s wrath are the people, who in spite of being quite familiar with the commandments of Allah willfully go against them out of a calculated perversity or in the service of their desires, or, in other words, who are deficient in obeying divine injunctions. This, for example, was the general condition of the Jews who were ready to sacrifice their religion for the sake of a petty worldly gain, and used to insult and sometimes even to kill their prophets.

As for (those who go astray), they are the people who, out of ignorance or lack of thought, go beyond the limits appointed by Allah, and indulge in excess and exaggeration in religious matters. This, for example, has generally been the error of the Christians who exceededthe limits in their reverence for a prophet and turned him into a god. On the one hand, there is the rebelliousness of the Jews who not only refused to listen to the prophets of Allah but went on to kill them; on the other hand, there is the excessive zeal of the Christians who deified a prophet.

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