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
- Qur’an Gateway lists the root as hmn, so too Lisan al-Arab and A. A. Nadwi and Kazimirski.
- A. A. Nadwi, Penrice, Mustansir Mir’s Verbal Idioms of Qur’an, and Muhammad Asad (223) take it as quadriliteral, from haymana.
- Badawi & Abdel Haleem also take it as quadriliteral, but note that some philologists understand it as triliteral from ʾ–m–n.
- Interestingly Arthur Jeffery (1938, 273-274), following Nöldeke, considers it a loanword from Aramaic or Syriac.
- 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 as ‘that [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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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 .
Steingass, F. The Student’s Arabic-English Dictionary. London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1884.