Al-Muhaymin – the textual control?

48 We sent to you [Muhammad] the Scripture with the truth, confirming the Scriptures that came before it, and with final authority over them [muhayminan ʿalayhi]: so judge between them according to what God has sent down. Do not follow their whims, which deviate from the truth that has come to you. We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (Q 5:48. All Qur’an translations are Abdel Haleem)

Muslims sometimes assert that when the Qur’an is described in Q 5:48 as a muhaymin that it is a form of ‘textual control’ or ‘quality control’; i.e. it determines what is textually authentic and corrupt in the previous scriptures. Paul Williams at Blogging Theology has used this kind of language, and Muhammad Asad (whom I discovered via Paul Williams) has this concept in mind in his commentary on Q 5:48, even though he uses different language.

But is this understanding of muhaymin correct?

Dictionaries and etymology

  • Steingass translates muhaymin as ‘protector, guardian (God); who says Amen, confirms; who keeps his promise (God); -*’ To ‘say Amen’ is presumably, like Jeffery and Nöldeke, based upon seeing here an Aramaic or Syriac substrate.
  • Hava says of muhaymin ‘The Watcher (God)’, and says of the verb haymana ‘To oversee, to watch over. To على – expand the wings over (her chickens: hen).’
  • Penrice translates muhaymin ‘That which preserves anything safe (with ʿalā) as muhayminan ʿalayhi 5 v. 52 [i.e. v. 48], “Preserving it (the Scripture) safe from change or corruption; ” al-muhaymin The Guardian, a name of God.’
  • A. A. Nadwi translates al-muhaymin as ‘one who determines what is true and false’, and the verb haymana as ‘to watch over, control’.
  • Badawi & Abdel Haleem understand muhaymin in Q 5:48 as ‘guarding over; standing up as a witness (Q 5:48)’, and for God in Q 59:23 as ‘Granter of Security, the One in control/the Controller.’

Verbal Idioms of Qur’an understands haymana ʿalayhi as ‘to watch over sth’, and muhayminan ʿalayhi asthat [which] keeps watch over it’. This dictionary does then note that according to Iṣlāḥī, as summarised by the dictionary, ‘the verse means that the Qurʾān is the touchstone by which all other scriptures are to be judged. He cites the expression, haymana ṭ-ṭāʾiru ʿalā firākhihī, which is used of a bird that is protectively hovering over its young ones, and concludes from this that the Qurʾān is a “custodian” of the other scriptures.’

What is interesting about this summary of Iṣlāḥī is that although he intends to set up the Qur’an as the criterion by which other scriptures are judged, the expression cited does not mention this, but speaks of a bird protecting its young. The predominant meaning of this word appears to be that of ‘guarding’ or ‘protecting’. I.e. ‘The Qur’an is a guardian over the previous scriptures. In what way? In that it is a textual control over them.’ This may or may not be a good contextual reading of muhaymin in Q 5:48 (we argue below that it is not), but it appears to be a logical inference rather than bound up with the etymology of the word itself, which fundamentally is about ‘guarding’ or ‘protecting’.

Meaning in context

Although we began with etymology, we believe that contextual usage is the best way to understand how to translate a word as used by an author, as argued by James Barr in his influential The Semantics of Biblical Language. This is especially so with the Qur’an, given that it is the first substantial piece of Arabic writing. Later dictionaries, especially dictionaries of Qur’anic vocabulary, will be to some extent dependent upon how they interpret certain words in the Qur’an. Unless one is confident of the authenticity of allegedly pre-Islamic poetry, and is aware of a parallel usage of muhaymin in that literature (please do let me know!), our best guess as to the meaning of this word is to see how the Qur’an itself uses the term.

If muhaymin is that which ‘guards’ or ‘controls’ or ‘protects’, does this mean in Q 5:48 correcting a previously textually corrupt scripture, or protecting the previous scriptures by ensuring their commandments are protected and enforced? The latter seems to fit better with the context (cf. vv. 40-50, including the verses immediately before and after v. 48, as well as v. 48 itself). The condemnation of the Jews in the surrounding context is not that they do not have the Lex Talionis penalty in the Torah because they have corrupted it; it is that they still have it (v. 45) but fail to follow it. The same failure to follow the law is found in the Hadith (e.g. this hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari) where Jews have the stoning penalty but do not wish to follow it, which Ibn Kathir links to v. 41. v. 48 commands the Prophet to ‘judge between them’; legal rulings is still the issue in view here. v. 47 may hint that at least some Christians, like the Jews, ‘do not judge according to what God has revealed [and so] are lawbreakers.’ (Abdel Haleem)

Our connection between muhaymin and the legal context is also made by The Study Qur’an (2015, 300):

The Quran is further described as a protector (muhaymin) over the previous scriptures, meaning that the Quran testifies to the validity of the earlier scriptures and serves as their trustee, keeper, and guardian (Ṭ[abari], Z[amakhshari]). “Protector” (al-Muhaymin) is also one of the Names of God in the Quran (59:23). The idea of the Quran as guardian and keeper of previous revelations is consistent with 5:41c and 5:45c, which report that the Prophet ordered the sentence of stoning for the two idolaters as well as retribution for killing and injury in order to reestablish the original Torah rulings on these matters.

Muhaymin is also a title of God in Q 59:23, the only other use of the word in the Qur’an, where it presumably means something like ‘guardian’ or ‘one in control/authority’ rather than ‘textual critic’/’textual controller’!

Even if one wishes to see Muhaymin as ‘controller/one in authority’ rather than ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’, this need not entail a claim of textual corruption of the previous scriptures. This could simply entail the idea of abrogation, that the commandments of the Qur’an as the final revelation supersede those of the earlier scriptures. However, even this is an unlikely meaning in context; v. 48 itself notes that God has chosen to prescribe different laws for different communities.

Tafsīr

Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, a popular Muslim commentary, tersely translates muhayminan as shāhidan, ‘testifying’ (translation from Feras Hamza found at al-Tafsir.com). Our earliest complete commentary from Muqātil ibn Suleymān (d. 150 AH/767 CE) says:

Muṣaddiqan ll-imā bayna yadayhi mina l-kitābi wa-muhayminan ʿalayhi [Qur’an citation from Q 5:48]. [Commentary:] He says: And a witness over it, and that is that the Qur’an of Muhammad (PBUH) is witnessing [shāhidun] that the books which were sent down before it were from God the exalted, the majestic. [My translation]

Ibn Kathīr (774 AH/d. 1373 CE) notes the multiple meanings that have been associated with this word, including ‘the Trustworthy’, ‘Witness’, ‘Dominant’, and believes that all are correct. The Qur’an is therefore ‘trustworthy over’, a witness to and ‘dominant over’ the previous scriptures. Might we, however, get insight into the primary meaning of this word by seeing that the shorter commentaries, including our earliest complete Qur’an commentary, mention only ‘witness’? Perhaps, perhaps not. At the end of the day, we argue that the contextual meaning is the most significant.

Conclusion

We have argued above that there is nothing in the word muhaymin, either in its reconstructed etymology or its likely contextual meaning, that suggests the idea of a ‘textual’ or ‘quality control.’ The core meaning is generally understood to be regarding ‘protecting’, ‘guarding’ or ‘controlling’. Even ‘controlling’ or ‘being in authority over’ need not imply textual corruption of the former scriptures, but the Qur’an’s authority to supersede and abrogate the previous laws. But the context seems to weigh against even this; God has apportioned different laws to different communities (v. 48), which ideally they should judge by (5:43, 5:47), but if they fail to do so the Qur’anic revelation (and Muhammad’s enforcement thereof) will ensure the original rulings are followed (v. 48).

But let us end by considering a methodological point. Here at Steelman we have attempted to understand the Qur’an’s view on the previous scriptures by considering what a multitude of Qur’anic verses have to say, and by weighing up the many positive verses with the few verses that might be viewed as more ambivalent. The counterargument to our position should not depend solely, or (dare I say) even depend heavily, on the debatable interpretation of a word whose root, of debatable origin, is used only twice in the entire Qur’an.

Bibliography

Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Quran. http://www.muhammad-asad.com/Message-of-Quran.pdf

Badawi, Elsaid, M. and Abdel Haleem, Muhammad. “هـ/ي/م/ن.” In Dictionary of Qurʾanic Usage. Qurʾānic Studies Online, dictionary:1000: Brill. Available here.

Blogging Theology

Dictionaries available here.

Hava, J. G. Arabic-English Dictionary for the Use of Students. Beyrut: Catholic Press, 1899.

Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qurʾān. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1938. Available here.

Kazirmiski, A. De Biberstein. Dictionnaire Arabe-Français. Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie, 1860.

Lisan al-Arab

Mir, Mustansir. Verbal Idioms of the Qur’ān. Ann Arbor: Centre for Near Eastern and North African Studies, The University of Michigan, 1989.

Nadwi, A. A. Vocabulary of the Holy Qur’an.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. New York: HarperOne, 2015.

Penrice, John. A Dictionary and Glossary of the Kor-Ân, with Copious Grammatical References and Explanations of the Text. Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors, 1991 [1873].

Steingass, F. The Student’s Arabic-English Dictionary. London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1884.

Qur’an Gateway

4 thoughts on “Al-Muhaymin – the textual control?

  1. Professor Sherif El-Hadi

    You should consult the hadith for clarification of Quraanic text. In Islamic jurisprudence and in exegesis the hadith is given weight only second to the Quran but is consulted for clarification and giving details to a certain commandment ie prayer number and fashion of execution.
    These are examples from Bukhari.

    1. Volume 9, Book 92, Number 460:
    Narrated Abu Huraira:
    The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims.
    Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but
    say, ‘We believe in Allah and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ”

    2. Volume 9, Book 92, Number 461 :
    Narrated Ubaidullah:
    Ibn ‘Abbas said, “Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Quran)
    which has been revealed to Allah’s Apostle is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and
    unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their
    scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, ‘It is from Allah,’ to sell it
    for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about
    anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been
    revealed to you!”

    Reply
  2. Mr Paul A Williams

    You should consult the hadith for clarification of Quranic text. In Islamic jurisprudence and in exegesis the hadith is given weight only second to the Quran but is consulted for clarification and giving details to a certain commandment ie the number of prayers and mode of execution.

    These are examples from Bukhari.

    1. Volume 9, Book 92, Number 460:
    Narrated Abu Huraira:
    The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims.
    Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but
    say, ‘We believe in Allah and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’ ”

    2. Volume 9, Book 92, Number 461 :
    Narrated Ubaidullah:
    Ibn ‘Abbas said, “Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Quran)
    which has been revealed to Allah’s Apostle is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and
    unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their
    scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, ‘It is from Allah,’ to sell it
    for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about
    anything? No, by Allah, we have never seen any man from them asking you regarding what has been
    revealed to you!”

    Reply
  3. Professor Sherif El-Hadi

    We understand that the dominance of the Qur’an over the older books of scripture has many faces. So it witnessed their truthfulness, testified to the lies where they were distorted and it is a ruler by approving what God has approved and cancelling what he cancelled, so it is a witness to the historical narrations and a judge to what are the orders of Allah.

    According to the great Islamic jurist and writer Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah.

    Reply
  4. steelmanapologetics Post author

    Many thanks Prof. Sherif El-Hadi and Paul Williams,

    Apologies for my slow delay, I was travelling last week.

    The first tradition from Bukhari actually fits very well with the charge made in the Qur’an of oral corruption and concealing – the problem is with how the People of the Book (Jews specifically) represent their book, rather than necessarily with the words on paper. Many of the verses I would appeal to can be found here – https://steelmanapologetics.com/the-ratio-of-oral-corruption-to-textual-corruption-verses-and-its-significance/

    You can make more of a case that the second tradition is talking about textual corruption – though I wonder if even that is talking about textual corruption. The main section is a condensing of numerous Qur’anic charges (harrafa, ghayyara, kataba), the first two of which are not necessarily textual. Kataba is obviously textual, and an allusion is made to Q 2:79 – though that may just be charging some Jews at the time of Muhammad making a change, those who ‘do not know the book’ (v. 78); this does not mean that the Torah as a whole was corrupted universally before the time of Muhammad, a common Muslim claim.

    The tradition does also mention the Qur’an, by comparison with the previous scriptures, being ‘pure, undistorted and unchanged’. It is not clear to me whether this is talking about how the Qur’an, unlike the previous scriptures, being textually preserved, or whether the point is that there are no corrupting intermediaries – the Muslims can access the Qur’an directly, and there is no suspicion of Jews having corrupted it in their relaying of information. It may, or may not, be significant that the tradition says ‘You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged’, rather than ‘Your text is pure undistorted and unchanged’ – is this passage concerned with untrustworthy transmitters rather than corrupt texts?

    Even if the Qur’an as a whole does affirm textual corruption, I do not see contextual evidence that muhaymin in Q 5:48 means this. The broader passage (vv. 40-50 or so) seems to be about the previous peoples (especially the Jews, arguably also the Christians) not judging by the rules which are still in their scriptures.

    Reply

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