This is a working draft being uploaded; it may be substantially revised once the author gets access to an article by Walid Saleh on this topic.
It is sometimes said that the Qur’an is a furqān, ‘criterion’, i.e. a criterion between authentic and inauthentic, and it therefore guides us as to what is authentic and inauthentic in the previous scriptures. But is this what the Qur’an says?
There are seven instances of furqān in the Qur’an, which I list below. All translations are Abdel Haleem unless otherwise indicated. Square brackets are original, apart from [al-furqān], which is sometimes my addition for the benefit of the reader.
Remember when We gave Moses the Scripture, and the means to distinguish [right and wrong] [al-furqān], so that you might be guided. (Q 2:53)
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong [al-furqān]. So any one of you who sees [sic] in that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later. God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. (Q 2:185)
3 Step by step, He has sent the Scripture down to you [Prophet] with the Truth, confirming what went before: He sent down the Torah and the Gospel 4 earlier as a guide for people and He has sent down the distinction [between right and wrong] [al-furqān]. [Footnote: ‘See also 5: 48; 25:1’] Those who deny God’s revelations will suffer severe torment: God is almighty and capable of retribution. (Q 3:3-4)
Believers, if you remain mindful of God, He will give you a criterion [to tell right from wrong] [furqānan] and wipe out your bad deeds, and forgive you: God’s favour is great indeed. (Q 8:29)
Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to God and the Messenger, to close relatives and orphans, to the needy and travellers, if you believe in God and the revelation We sent down to Our servant on the day of decision [al-furqān], the day when the two forces met in battle. God has power over all things. (Q 8:41)
We gave Moses and Aaron [the Scripture] that distinguishes right from wrong [al-furqān], a light and a reminder for those who are mindful of God, (Q 21:48)
Exalted is He who has sent the Differentiator [Footnote – Al-furqan, another name for the Qur’an. The word means ‘that which differentiates right from wrong’.] down to His servant so that he may give warning to all people. (Q 25:1)
Before considering these texts further, it will be worth considering the potential etymology(s) of this word.
It is not controversial to note that the Arabic root (f-r-q) is associated with ‘dividing’. The verbal form is used for Allah dividing of the sea which the Israelites crossed (Q 2:50). One group (farīqun) may be divided or distinguished from another (Q 2:85). Some people wished to ’cause discord’ (yufarriqūna, Q 2:102) between man and wife. And so on.
Accordingly, it is thoroughly plausible that furqān also involves some kind of division or separation or distinguishing. A ‘criterion’ is that which is used to distinguish between things, such as between truth and falsehood or ‘right and wrong’, with Abdel Haleem favouring the latter (see his translations above). ‘Criterion’ would therefore be a plausible translation.
An intriguing proposal, that still takes seriously the Arabic root f-r-q, has been put forward by Uri Rubin (2009), who, though not discounting some degree of Syriac/Aramaic influence (see below), highlights non-Qur’anic texts where furqān means ‘dawn’ or ‘morning’. This meaning is clear in context: for example, Rubin (423) notes that in commenting on the Bedouin statement ‘I went on acting wildly in the darkness of night, till the furqān shone [saṭaʿa]’, Al-Marzūqī (d. 421/1030) explained furqān: as al-ṣubḥ (‘morning’). A similar, probably more original version, by al-Azharī (d. 370/980) translates furqān as ‘i.e., dawn’ (al-saḥar). version. This makes good etymological sense; as attested by the English idiom ‘the break of dawn’/’the break of day’, it is ‘dawn’ that ‘seperates’ (f-r-q) the passing night from the coming day. This connection was also noted by Arab writers, as Rubin (424) records. We will consider below how this may relate to the furqān passages in the Qur’an.
We will discuss below how non-Arabic influence might suggest the translation of furqān as ‘salvation’/’deliverance’. It is worth noting here that such meanings have also been attributed to furqān as an Arabic word by Arab writers (Rubin, 2009, pp. 428ff), as will be discussed in greater detail in our text study.
Arthur Jeffery (1938, 225-229. Available for free here), while conceding that ‘[t]he form of the word would suggest that it was genuine Arabic’, provides a lengthy discussion of different possible non-Arabic influences proposed by scholars, which we will discuss below. On this point of the form, Reynolds (2018, 45) seems to disagree with Jeffery: ‘furqān (like qurʾān) reflects the morphology of Syro-Aramaic’. I will have to plead ignorance regarding the likelihood of furqān and qurʾān being genuine Arabic word forms.
According to Daniel Madigan (n.d.), ‘[a]lthough a foreign origin has not been posited by the Muslim tradition, it has nonetheless been recognized that a simple derivation from the Arabic root letters f-r-q (to separate, distinguish) will not easily explain all the uses of furqān.’ It is in part this difficulty to account for all of the Qur’anic uses of furqān, as well as notable non-Arabic parallels, that has led many Western scholars to postulate non-Arabic influence.
One suggestion from Jeffery (1938, 226) is that yawm al-furqān reflects the Aramaic Targum to 1 Samuel 11:13: Ywmʾ dyn ʿvd yhwh fwrqnʾ bysrʾl, ‘…this day the LORD made fwrqn to Israel’. Fwrqn here is translating the Hebrew Tshūʿāh, ‘salvation’, which may sound familiar as it is similar to Jesus’ name, which means ‘The LORD saves’. And so, even though it does not use the same construction as the Qur’an, the Targum to 1 Samuel 11:13 is effectively speaking of Ywmʾ…fwrqn, the same as yawm al-furqān in Q 8:41. Both also have the context of God’s deliverance in military battle. Jeffery (227) notes that the linking of the Qur’anic furqān to the Aramaic frqn goes back at least as far as Abraham Geiger (whom he cites via Charles Torrey, Foundation, 48).
As for Syriac, Jeffery (226) notes that Lidzbarski (ZS, i, 92) highlights the Peshitta of Isaiah 49:8, where the Hebrew yōm Yshūʿāh (‘a day of salvation’) is rendered b-ywmʾ d-pwrqnʾ (‘on a/the day of pwrqnʾ), even closer to yawm al-furqān (f and p are related linguistically). Jeffery (277) notes that the link between the Arabic and Syriac on this matter goes back as far as Fraenkel (Vocab, 23), ‘a suggestion which has been very fruitfully explored by later scholars.’ I would note this fits well with the trend in recent scholarship to understand the Qur’an against the backdrop of Syriac Christianity. (e.g. Zellentin, 2013).
Jeffery (227), citing Nōldeke-Schwally (i, 34), notes that the Syriac pwrqnʾ has also influenced Ethiopic, and I would add that loanwords from Ethiopic have also been suggested within the Qur’an. Reynolds (2018, 216-217) traces the Arabic ḥawāriyyūn (‘disciples’) from the Ethiopic word ḥawāriyā (‘meaning idiomatically “apostle”‘) and māʾidat (Q 5:112), often translated ‘table’, from the Ethiopic māʾedd (‘banquet’). But I believe Syriac and Aramaic words are more commonly postulated as having contributed to the Qur’an’s vocabulary than Ethiopic.
Fred Donner (2007) offers an intriguing, albeit (unintentionally) controversial thesis, that the Qur’an reflects a conflation between two Syriac words: purqānā (‘salvation’, see discussion above) and puqdānā (‘commandment’). I reproduce a screenshot of p. 290 to allow the reader to see the similarity between the words:
Additionally, Donner (290-291) wonders whether ‘all Syriac texts of Muḥammad’s time consistently employed the diacritical dot distinguishing d from r.’ I am not qualified to comment on this last point, and Donner makes clear that he is speculating based on how one might interpret the words of J. B. Segal (The diacritical points and the accents in Syriac, London, 1953, 5). Either way, the words are nonetheless similar in appearance.
Not only is there similarity in how the words are written, but, Donner claims, the translation of furqān as ‘commandments’ makes good sense in Q 2:53 and Q 21:48, where Moses (and Aaron in the latter) are the recipients. This could be a reference to the giving of the commandments at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20 onwards).
Having laid out the possible exegetical options on the table, let’s now dive in to consider our texts.
Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to God and the Messenger, to close relatives and orphans, to the needy and travellers, if you believe in God and the revelation We sent down to Our servant on the day of decision [furqān], the day when the two forces met in battle. God has power over all things. (Q 8:41)
Furqān could simply be reflecting the Arabic root, and here mean something like ‘differentiation’, or ‘decision’ as translated by Abdel Haleem. The battle of Badr was the day on which the believers were differentiated from, and favoured, over the unbelievers. This would also fit the immediate context; immediately after mentioning the ‘day of furqān’, it says ‘the day when the two forces met in battle.’ Furqān could well mean the ‘differentiation’ or ‘decision’ between these ‘two forces’. And the ‘clear sign’ of Q 8:42 could refer to the ‘decision’/’differentation’ of v. 41; God has made clear which side he supports.
Similar to the above understanding is the late commentator al-Bayḍāwī’s (d. 7-8th/13-14th century) understanding of ‘day of furqān as ‘the day of Badr, for on it truth was distinguished between falsehood’ (Donner, 2007, 281; his translation). Donner (285) notes similar explanations attributed to early authorities such as ʿAlī, and Rubin (2009, 431-42) attributed the same idea to Muqātil ibn Suleymān (our early complete Qur’an commentary. d. 150/767 CE).
However I do not think the close Aramaic and Syriac parallels listed above, which also occur in military contexts, can be easily discounted. At least in this verse, there seems to be some Aramaic and/or Syriac influence. It would thus be the ‘day of salvation’ (or ‘day of deliverance’, Droge, 110), the day the believers were saved from the military threat of the disbelievers. Donner (2007, 285) notes traditions from Ibn ʿAbbās and Mujāhid which ‘simply equate yawm al-furqān with the Battle of Badr.’ Additionally, ‘al-Rāzī notes that yawm al-furqān in Q. 8:41 simply refers to the battle of Badr, without any further explanation.’ Perhaps this hints at a recollection that the military deliverance was itself the furqān. Although, as Rubin (2009, 431-432) noted, Muqātil saw Badr as the day on which ‘God has separated truth from falsehood’, this is said to be on ‘the day of victory, on which God has separated truth from falsehood, and gave victory to the Prophet and defeated the polytheists at Badr.’ Accordingly, the Arabic sense of division may still be present; furqān in this instance may have connotations of both distinction between believers and unbelievers, and the salvation or deliverance of the former from the latter.
Rubin (2009) does argue that both Arabic and non-Arabic linguistic influence can be seen in the word furqān. He (426) notes that the link between ‘separation’ (between God’s people and their enemies) can be seen as far back as the Hebrew of Exodus 8:23 and Psalm 111:9, the Syriac of the Peshitta, and the Aramaic Targums where the relevant Hebrew word for ‘seperation’/’redemption’ is translated by purqān.
Rubin (427) follows Donner (2007, 289) in noting the parallel between Q 8:41 and Q 26:61, where the term ‘the two parties’ (al-jamʿān) also occurs, describing the followers of Moses against the Egyptians. Rubin notes that in Q 26:62-63 the sea ‘parted’ (infalaqa, from f-l-q) and into each ‘part’ firq (from f-r-q). As a result, Moses and his followers were ‘saved’ (Q 26:65). It may be that the Qur’an is consciously aware of the connection between division and salvation, although Rubin may be reading a bit much into the texts here; had there been a close connection we might have expected the verb form to utilise f-r-q rather than f-l-q.
Whatever we may think of this particular parallel, the overall connection between ‘distinction’ and ‘salvation’ is clearly pre-Qur’anic, and fits plausibly in Q 8:41. It may be hinted at in some of the Tafsīr mentioned above.
Believers, if you remain mindful of God, He will give you a criterion [to tell right from wrong] [furqān] and wipe out your bad deeds, and forgive you: God’s favour is great indeed. (Q 8:29. Square brackets original apart from furqān)
As with Q 8:41, we have mention of furqān within a military context. Surah al-Anfāl takes its title from the Anfāl, the ‘war booty’. It is thought to have been revealed largely in response to the Battle of Badr (Abdel Haleem, 2010, 178). It is worth reproducing vv. 26-30 in full:
26 Remember when you were few, victimized in the land, afraid that people might catch you, but God sheltered you and strengthened you with His help, and provided you with good things so that you might be grateful. 27 Believers, do not betray God and the Messenger, or knowingly betray [other people’s] trust in you. 28 Be aware that your possessions and your children are only a test, and that there is a tremendous reward with God. 29 Believers, if you remain mindful of God, He will give you a criterion [to tell right from wrong] and wipe out your bad deeds, and forgive you: God’s favour is great indeed. 30 Remember [Prophet] when the disbelievers plotted to take you captive, kill, or expel you. They schemed and so did God: He is the best of schemers.
vv. 26 and 30 clearly refer to a military context. But what about the verses in between? Not betraying the Messenger in v. 27 may be referring to betraying him to or siding with his enemies, but not betraying others may suggest wider concerns than solely the battlefield. It could be envisaging abandoning one’s fellow soldiers; the same root is used for military betrayal in Q 8:58 and Q 8:71. But the word for ‘trust’ (lit: ‘your trusts’) is elsewhere used in non-military contexts (Q 4:58, 23:8, 70:32). The possessions and children of v. 28 may be a distraction from the imperative to fight (perhaps Q 9:55, see the preceding verses; Q 9:85, cf. surrounding verses), but they may just be a distraction from religion in general (e.g. Q 3:10, 34:37, 57:20 and elsewhere).
This does affect our potential interpretation of furqān; if there is a military context then it may be talking about ‘deliverance’ or ‘salvation’, but if not, then it might have another meaning, as we will discuss below. Does the rest of v. 30 give us a clue what furqān there might mean?
We could understand criterion as Abdel Haleem does in brackets, as that which can ‘tell right from wrong’; this blessing from God helps believers know how to live ethically, and as for their moral shortcomings, God will also ‘wipe out your bad deeds, and forgive you’. This continued treatment of sins, how to avoid them and how to have them forgiven, would make good contextual sense.
But it also makes good sense that the verse lists God’s blessings, even if they are of different categories; he saves you from your earthly enemies, and he forgives your sins. v. 26 combined a military victory from God along with God’s provisions of ‘good things so that you might be grateful’, using words that typically refer to food and natural blessings (razaqakum mina l‑ṭayyibāti. For these roots in combination cf. e.g. Q 2:57, 16:72). So perhaps a similar mixing of categories of blessings is to be found here.
Rubin (2009, 428) notes the same condition which was used in Q 8:29, ‘If you remain mindful of God’ (tattaqū), also being used in Q 65:2, 4, ‘those who are mindful of Him’ (yattaqi). In Q 65:2 those who are mindful of God are promised a makhraj, ‘a way out’, and in Q 65:4 ‘alleviation’ (yusr). As Rubin notes, if we see these as parallels, then furqān ‘seems to denote a way out from hardships’. Rubin (428), Daniel Madigan (n.d.) and Donner (2007, 284-285) even note traditions in al-Ṭabarī on Q 8:29 connecting furqān and makhraj (‘way out’), al-najāt (‘redemption’) and al-naṣr (‘victory’). According to Donner (2007, 283), al-Rāzī offers the interpretation that furqān here is the separation that God has made between believers and disbelievers.
This connection is even as early as Muqātil ibn Silaymān (d. 150/767), as noted by Rubin (430), though he understands it as a ‘way out’ of ‘doubts’. al-Ṭabarī also records the rather different meaning, though he considers it similar, given by Ibn Isḥāq, faṣl, a distinction between true and false (285). Rubin (2009, 430) notes a number of traditions where furqān in Q 8:29 refers to a distinction between true and false, such as a tradition attributed to ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr (d. 94/713) in the Tafsīr of Ibn Abī Ḥātim (d. 327/938). Rubin (430-431) notes this interpretation can already be found in the Sīra of Ibn Isḥāq, but lacking an isnād.
But it is still interesting that a number of the glosses match up well with furqān as similar to ‘deliverance’. Furthermore, ‘deliverance’, along with ‘criterion of right and wrong’, would seem to better fit Q 8:29. Distinction between ‘true and false’, although found in the tafsīr, does not seem as relevant a reading in the context of Q 8:29.
To add a point of my own, Q 8:29 is not far from Q 8:41, and it is preferable to think the word is being used similarly in both (thus ‘deliverance’). Furthermore, the language of ‘give you a furqān ‘ (lit. ‘make [yajʿal] you a furqān‘) might make more sense for ‘deliverance’; ‘give you a deliverance’, ‘make you a deliverance’. Or it might make sense for a non-scriptural difference: ‘make you a distinction [between you and your enemies].’ The language of ‘giving’ or ‘making you a furqān‘ is in fact similar to the Aramaic Targum to 1 Samuel 11:13 mentioned above: ‘..this day the LORD made fwrqn to Israel’. By contrast, if furqān were a form of revelation, we might expect the verb nazzala, ‘to send down’/’reveal’ (as is the case with furqān in Q 2:185, 3:4, and Q 25:1), or perhaps ‘ty ‘to give’ (Q 2:53, 21:48). Finally, it is interesting that this is in fact the only use of furqān in the Qur’an without the definite article (‘the’, al). This further suggests that God is giving a salvation (or at least a distinction [between Moses’ followers and Egypt]), rather than ‘the Criterion’ (i.e. the Qur’an, cf. Q 25:1).
In conclusion, it would seem that Q 8:29, as with Q 8:41, most likely uses furqān to mean ‘salvation’/’deliverance’. This may be reflected in those tafsīrs that speak of furqān as makhraj (‘way out’), al-najāt (‘redemption’) and al-naṣr (‘victory’), or at least of a distinction between the two groups.
There are other instances in which the furqān is clearly referring not (just) to ‘salvation’, but to some form of revelation. It is quite possible that the Aramaic and Syriac overtones of ‘salvation’, evident in Q 8, carry over to these other verses as well.
Jeffery (1938, 288) notes that Lidzbarski (ZS, i, 91) and Bell (Origin, 118ff.), have suggested a connection between revelation and salvation. Lidzbarski notes that in Gnosticism salvation was considered to come particularly through revelation (though Jeffery cites Rudolf, Abhängigkeit, 92, who notes that this is not restricted to Gnostics). Bell (2016, 122) argues that in the same way there was a historical connection between the redemption of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the Law, so too is there an association with the deliverance of the Muslims at Badr and the revelation of the Qur’an.
Having argued that the overtones of ‘salvation’ may still be present, it is clear in some verses that furqān refers to a form of revelation. In Q 25:1 we read:
Exalted is He who has sent the Differentiator [Footnote – Al-furqan, another name for the Qur’an. The word means ‘that which differentiates right from wrong’.] down to His servant so that he may give warning to all people. (Q 25:1)
This is most likely the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad (pace the suggestion of Donner, 2007, 293, that this might refer to Moses). The revelation may be called a ‘salvation’ (see above; translated here by Droge, 2013, 233, as ‘Deliverance’). Alternatively, furqān may refer to a ‘differentiation’ or ‘distinguishing’, which in turn may be moral (‘between right and wrong’) or epistemological (‘between true and false’). Donner (2007, 282) notes glosses in Al-Ṭabarī for furqān as a distinction between true and false, including at Q 25:1. Indeed, Donner notes that according to al-Rāzī ‘there is no disagreement [among scholars] that al-furqān (in Q 25:1) is the Qurʾān, because He distinguished through it between truth and falsehood in the prophethood of Muḥammad (ṣ) and between the permissible and the forbidden.’ This would be both moral and epistemological differentiation. (Rubin’s translation, footnote 4). Rubin (2009, 430) observes that for Muqātil ibn Suleymān furqān in Q 25:1 is a makhraj (‘way out’) out of ‘doubts’.
The following verses oppose shirk, which is a moral wrong and an epistemological falsehood, but also something one needs saving from. Any of these senses of furqān, or indeed multiple, may be in view.
There is nothing in the context about it being a furqān vis-a-vis the previous revelations. These other scriptures are not mentioned in the context; instead it is shirk itself that is opposed, wherever such a belief is derived. It is not clear whether pagans or the People of the Book are in view (a thorny topic in the Qur’an, cf. Hawting, Gerald R., 1999).
It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong [furqān]. So any one of you who sees [sic] in that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later. God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. (Q 2:185)
Here the Qur’an is associated with or identified as ‘guidance…clear messages giving guidance and [al-furqān]’. It could seen as making distinction between either ‘right and wrong’ (as Abdel Haleem), or between ‘true and false’, or both. Donner (2007, 282) notes traditions in Al-Ṭabarī for furqān as a distinction between true and false, including at Q 2:185, and Rubin (2009, 430) observes that for Muqātil ibn Suleymān furqān in Q 2:185 is a makhraj (‘way out’) out of ‘doubts’.
al-Rāzī discusses the possibility that ‘guidance and furqān‘ refers to the Torah and Gospel (Donner, 2007, 284); I find this thoroughly implausible in this context, but it is interesting to note the exegetical diversity on offer.
The legal context (both before and after) would suggest to me that distinction between ‘right and wrong’ is more likely than ‘true and false’. There is nothing in the context about it being a furqān over the previous scriptures. It is also possible that furqān has connotations of ‘salvation’/’deliverance’ (as Droge, 2013, 19); while ‘criterion for right and wrong’ might fit better for this verse on its own, it depends if one wishes to translate furqān here consistently with other passages where ‘deliverance’ is just as plausible or even more likely (Q 8:41).
We gave Moses and Aaron [the Scripture] that distinguishes right from wrong [furqān], a light and a reminder for those who are mindful of God, (Q 21:48)
It is not only the Qur’an that is called furqān. Moses and Aaron were given al-furqān, presumably a reference to the Torah. While furqān could elsewhere refer to the ‘deliverance’ of the Israelites from Egypt, the combination of the term with ‘light’ and ‘reminder’ suggests that revelation is indeed in view here. However it is possible that the connotation of ‘deliverance’ has been transferred to the Torah revealed shortly after the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt (cf. above and Bell, 2016, 122; Droge, 2013, 209 has ‘Deliverance’ here as usual). Rubin (2009, 429) has noted that al-Māwardī attributes to al-Kalbī (d. 146/763) that furqān here means ‘victory and redemption’ (al-naṣr waʾl-najāt) from Egypt.
al-Ṭabarī attributes to Qatada the view that the Torah is in view, and that it distinguishes between true and false (Donner, 2007, 283). Donner notes that this opinion can also be found in al-Rāzī, though ‘without naming his informant.’ Donner notes that al-Ṭabarī disagrees.
Fred Donner (2007, 292-293) wonders whether furqān Q 21:48 might reflect the Syriac puqdānā, ‘commandments’. While this could make sense of this verse, and particularly given the chronology of the parallel Q 2:53 (see below), one’s attitude to it will be determined by the plausibility of his overall hypothesis.
There is nothing in the context to suggest that the furqān here implies any kind of textual corruption of previous scriptures. There is nothing in the context to suggest that the ‘scroll/scrolls of Abraham’ (Q 53:36-37, 87:19), for example, are in need of textual correction.
Remember when We gave Moses the Scripture, and the means to distinguish [right and wrong] [furqān], so that you might be guided. (Q 2:53. All translations are Abdel Haleem unless otherwise indicated. The first square brackets are original; I have added furqān)
Here the furqān is associated with ‘the Scripture’. A distinction between ‘right and wrong’ makes good sense, as Q 2:53 is situated just after the deliverance from Egypt (2:50) and around the time of the episode of the calf idol (Q 2:51-52, 54). It is at around this time in the biblical account (Exodus 20-31) that part of the commandments of the law (especially the ten commandments, Exodus 20), was first revealed.
Indeed, Fred Donner (2007, 292-293 wonders whether furqān in Q 2:53 might reflect the Syriac puqdānā, ‘commandments’. While this could make sense of this verse, and it is chronologically located at the right moment (but so too for the Law more generally), one’s attitude to it will be determined by the plausibility of his overall hypothesis.
Is furqān just another reference to the ‘Scripture’ mentioned earlier in the verse, i.e. the Torah? R. Paret (n.d.) seems to reject such a possibility. He notes that Watt (Muhammad at Medina, 1956, 16), generally following Richard Bell (The origin of Islam in its Christian environment, 1926, 118-125), considers the furqān in Q 2:53 to be ‘doubtless his deliverance when he led his people out of Egypt, and Pharoah and his hosts were overwhelmed.’ Rubin (2009, 429) notes that al-Māwardī (d. 450/1059) provides a number of exegetical possibilities, including that the furqān is the ‘victory (naṣr), by which God has distinguished between Moses and Pharoah, till he saved (anjā) Moses and his people and drown Pharoah and his people’ (Rubin’s translation). Rubin also notes the interpretation, listed by al-Māwardī, that the furqān is the splitting of the sea, inspired by the splitting of the sea in (Q 26:61-63).
While furqān as ‘deliverance’ is plausible if we take Q 2:53 on its own, Q 21:48 seems to be speaking of the furqān given to Moses and Aaron as if it were itself a scripture. However, as discussed above, the term furqān may speak of a Scripture that brings ‘salvation’.
Donner (2007, 282) notes tradition(s) in al-Ṭabarī for Q 2:53 that furqān is explained as ‘a general seperation (faṣl) between truth and falsehood’. Donner (284) notes that some of the individuals mentioned by al-Rāzī’s equated furqān in Q 2:53 with the Torah, though al-Rāzī considers this one possibility amongst others. It could be the Torah, something within it, or indeed even something else entirely, such as the miraculous signs God gave to Moses (e.g. Moses’ miraculous staff). I consider this last option particularly unlikely, but it highlights the richness of the exegetical tradition.
In summary, furqān doesn’t seem to solely mean deliverance, even if that connotation might be present: more plausibly it is a form of scripture (or perhaps ‘commandments’ if one is open to Donner’s thesis). The connotations of the scripture as furqān, whether ‘deliverance’ or ‘distinction between right and wrong’ or ‘distinction between true and false’, are not clear (though due to the narrative context options 1 and 2 are more likely than 3). There is no hint here that it is correcting former scriptures.
3 Step by step, He has sent the Scripture down to you [Prophet] with the Truth, confirming what went before: He sent down the Torah and the Gospel 4 earlier as a guide for people and He has sent down the distinction [between right and wrong] [furqān]. [Footnote: ‘See also 5: 48; 25:1’] Those who deny God’s revelations will suffer severe torment: God is almighty and capable of retribution. (Q 3:3-4. Square brackets original apart from furqān where I have added the footnote material)
This is the verse that could most plausibly be used to claim that the Qur’an is a furqān over the previous scriptures, a ‘criterion’ used to distinguish between what is true and false in them.
Q 3:3-4 in light of other uses of furqān
The biggest problem with this understanding is that, as we have seen, this is not how furqān is used elsewhere in the Qur’an. In one (Q 8:41) or two (Q 8:29) places, it refers primarily to ‘deliverance’/’salvation’. The term may also have the connotation of ‘salvation’/’deliverance’ in other passages, which may be why the Qur’an is highlighted here in Q 3:3-4 as furqān; it has come as the latest revelation to bring ‘salvation’ to its audience.
Alternatively, the term may indeed mean ‘criterion’. It could mean a ‘criterion between true and false’. Rubin (2009, 430) notes that for Muqātil ibn Suleymān, the furqān in Q 3:4 (and elsewhere) refers to scripture as a ‘way out’ (makhraj) of ‘doubts’ (shubuhāt). Donner (2007, 281) notes that, according to al-Ṭabarī, to Rabīʿ b. Anas (d. 139/756) is attributed the view that furqān in Q 3:3 is the Qur’an, which distinguishes (faraqa or farraqa) between true and false. Donner (2007, 281) also notes the late commentator al-Bayḍāwī (d. 7-8th/13-14th century), who, commenting on furqān on Q 3:3, says ‘by this he means a kind (jins) of divine books, for they are things that distinguish between truth and falsehood.’ Rubin (2009, 430) notes that for Muqātil ibn Suleymān, the furqān in Q 3:4 (and elsewhere) refers to scripture as a ‘way out’ (makhraj) of ‘doubts’ (shubuhāt).
But the Qur’an is a ‘criterion’, it could be a criterion between ‘right and wrong’. The latter is how Abdel Haleem tends to understand it (both here and elsewhere), and so too Tafsīr ibn ʿAbbās which speaks of how the Qur’an came to ‘differentiate the lawful from the unlawful’.
An interesting tradition attributed to Qatāda ibn Diʿāma (d. 60/679) understands the furqān in Q 3:3 to refer to the Qur’an, by which ‘He divided or distinguished (faraqa or farraqa) between truth and falsehood, making what is lawful (ḥalāl) lawful, and what is forbidden (ḥarām) forbidden, and laying down His statutes and drawing His limits and stipulating His requirements (farāʾiḍ), manifesting in it His proof, and ordering obedience to Him and avoidance of sin.’ (Donner’s paraphrase, 281-282). We see here the furqān as a criterion for both true and false and right and wrong.
We have argued that ‘right and wrong’ would fit better in Q 8:29, 2:185 and Q 2:53. We can imagine why Q 3:4 might highlight that the Qur’an in particular has come as a guide between right and wrong; similar language appears in Q 5:48 where the Qur’an can provide moral guidance to the Jews (even though they don’t actually need it as they have the Torah, v. 43; cf. my article here). The Qur’an portrays itself as ‘a confirmation of what was revealed before it and an explanation [tafṣīla] of the Scripture.’ (Q 10:37); it both confirms but also provides greater clarity. So too in Q 12:111: ‘it is a confirmation of the truth of what [lit: ‘confirmation of that which is before it’] was sent before it; an explanation of everything…’ This may be why the Qur’an is called a furqān even though the previous scriptures are mentioned just before.
An unclear accusation?
If it were a furqān over the previous scriptures, determining what is true and false therein, we might expect this to be more clearly indicated, given that the previous verse says that the Qur’an is ‘confirming’ [muṣaddiqan] those previous scriptures. We might expect language of being a furqān ‘over’ the previous scriptures, which we do find for muhaymin (Q 5:48; see article here). Instead, it simply says that the furqān was sent down. Furthermore, as pointed out by Adam Hardie (personal conversation), it would be strange that the Qur’an should accuse the former scriptures of corruption in v. 4 using furqān, in vague fashion, and then go on in the same verse to condemn those who disbelieve in ‘God’s revelations’ (lit: the āyāt/’signs’/’verses’ of God).
A potential parallel? (Q 3:3-4, 5:48)
In fairness, one could note the extensive linguistic similarity between Q 3:3-4 and Q 5:48:
3 nazzala ʿalayka l‑kitāba bil‑ḥaqqi muṣaddiqan li‑mā bayna yadayhi wa‑anzala l‑tawrāta wa‑l‑injīla 4 min qablu hudan lil‑nāsi wa‑anzala l‑furqāna inna lladhīna kafarū bi‑āyāti allāhi lahum ʿadhābun shadīdun wallāhu ʿazīzun dhū intiqāmin (Q 3:3-4)
3 Step by step, He has sent the Scripture down to you [Prophet] with the Truth, confirming what went before: He sent down the Torah and the Gospel 4 earlier as a guide for people and He has sent down the distinction [between right and wrong.][Footnote: ‘See also 5: 48; 25:1’] Those who deny God’s revelations will suffer severe torment: God is almighty and capable of retribution. (Q 3:3-4)
wa‑anzalnā ilayka l‑kitāba bil‑ḥaqqi muṣaddiqan li‑mā bayna yadayhi mina l‑kitābi wa‑muhayminan ʿalayhi fa‑aḥkum baynahum bimā anzala allāhu wa‑lā tattabiʿ ahwāʾahum ʿammā jāʾaka mina l‑ḥaqqi li‑kullin jaʿalnā minkum shirʿatan wa‑minhājan wa‑law shāʾa allāhu lajaʿalakum ummatan wāḥidatan wa‑lākin li‑yabluwakum fī mā ātakum fa‑istabiqū l‑khayrāti ilā allāhi marjiʿukum jamīʿan fa‑yunabbiʾukum bi‑mā kuntum fīhi takhtalifūna (Q 5:48)
48 We sent to you [Muhammad] the Scripture with the truth, confirming the Scriptures that came before it, and with final authority over them: 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)
I have used bold and italics to note close verbal parallels between these passages. I have used straight bold to indicate where there is a more subjective parallel; is ‘and he sent down the distinction‘ (wa‑anzala l‑furqāna) a parallel to ‘and with final authority over them‘ (wa‑muhayminan ʿalayhi)? If it were a parallel, we could perhaps understand these verses in light of each other, and the furqān might then become ‘over them’ (i.e. the previous scriptures). I wonder if Abdel Haleem in his footnote on Q 3:3-4 where he refers the reader to Q 5:48 had this verbal, or perhaps conceptual, parallel in mind. Perhaps this suggestion from Abdel Haleem is where I first discovered the parallel.
First of all, Q 5:48 reveals that the Qur’anic idiom can clearly express when one scripture is, for example muhaymin, ‘over’ the previous scriptures (ʿalayhi); but this expression is not used in Q 3:3-4. Secondly, one wonders how significant is the parallel cited above. A similarly close parallel can be found in Q 35:31:
wa‑alladhī awḥaynā [a synonym for anzalnā] ilayka mina l‑kitābi huwa l‑ḥaqqu muṣaddiqan li‑mā bayna yadayhi inna allāha bi‑ʿabādihi lakhabīrun baṣīrun
The Scripture We have revealed to you [Prophet] is the Truth and confirms the scriptures that preceded it. God is well informed about His servants, He sees everything.
While one might allege that Q 35:31 is also alleging textual corruption (‘God is well informed about His servants, He sees everything’), the passage need not be read this way. It may be expressing an awareness that some people of the Book deny the closeness between these scriptures; they ‘conceal’ the truth, a common theme in the Qur’an (e.g. Q 2:174), and even hide it behind their back (Q 3:187). For more on non-textual forms of misbehaviour cf. the articles under the heading ‘The Qur’an affirms the Torah and Gospel’s reliability’ here.
Returning to textual parallels, Q 3:3-4 and Q 5:48 are made up of formulae which are frequent in the Qur’an. For more on this topic, see Andy Bannister’s An oral-formulaic study of the Qur’an. For the combination of nazzala (‘to send down’), al-kitāb (‘the Book’) and bi-l-ḥaqq (‘with truth’), cf. Q 2:176, 2:213, 4:105, 39:2 and 42:17, on top of our verses in question (Q 3:3 and 5:48). Q 35:31 has the synonym awḥaynā (‘we revealed’/’inspired’), al-kitāb (‘the Book’) and huwa l-ḥaqq (‘it is the truth’). The combination of muṣaddiqan (‘confirming’) and bayna yadayhi (‘before it’, lit: ‘between it’s/his hands’) occurs twelve times (Q 2:97; 3:3; ‘between my hands’, 3:50; twice in Q 5:46; 5:48; 6:92; taṣdīq ‘confirmation’, in 10:37 and 12:111; 35:31; 46:30; 61:6).
It is true that Q 3:3-4 and Q 5:48 are especially close in their combination of these different phrases. But this may be due to their similar subject matter, rather than an intentional parallel. Some passages will always be closer to each other than others. And we noted that Q 35:31 is close to them as well, and that passage doesn’t need to be read to allege textual corruption.
Given that Q 3:3-4 and Q 5:48 both contain stock phrases, and given that these verses are both interested in recounting the succession of scriptures, perhaps we ought not to be surprised at the verbal closeness between them. We should therefore be tentative about any suggestion of reading wa‑anzala l‑furqāna in light of muhayminan ʿalayhi, especially given broader Qur’anic usage of furqān, and the fact that Q 3:4 could have said ʿalayhi (‘over it’) had the Qur’an so wished.
Furthermore, one should also note the differences between Q 3:3-4 and Q 5:48 as well as the similarities. Some of the differences are minor, others more substantial, but they might suggest this is not an intended parallel:
- Nazzala instead of anzalnā. ‘He revealed’ instead of ‘We revealed’. First form instead of fourth form of the verb, but the same meaning.
- ʿalayka instead of ilayka. ‘Upon you’ instead of ‘to you’ – different preposition, similar meaning.
- wa‑anzala l‑tawrāta wa‑l‑injīla instead of mina l‑kitābi. ‘And he revealed the Torah and the Gospel’ instead of ‘of the Book’. The former provides the detailed information lacking in the latter.
- min qablu hudan lil‑nāsi instead of omitted. ‘From before as guidance to the people’ instead of omitted.
- wa‑anzala l‑furqāna instead of wa‑muhayminan ʿalayhi. ‘And he revealed the furqān‘ instead of ‘and a muhaymin over it’.
Does furqān refer only to the Qur’an? – the Tafsīr
Thus far we have been assuming that the furqān, whatever it might mean, is referring to (only) the Qur’an. The Study Qur’an (Nasr et. al, 2015, 128) notes that this is the ‘usual’ interpretation, but that there are exceptions.
As an example of this ‘usual’ interpretation, Donner (2007, 281) notes that, according to al-Ṭabarī, to Rabīʿ b. Anas (d. 139/756) is attributed the view that furqān in Q 3:3 is the Qur’an, which distinguishes (faraqa or farraqa) between true and false. An interesting tradition attributed to Qatāda ibn Diʿāma (d. 60/679) understands the furqān in Q 3:3 to refer to the Qur’an, which guides between both true and false and right and wrong (Donner, 2007, 281-282). Tafsīr ibn ʿAbbās also seems to envisage the furqān as the Qur’an coming to differentiate between ‘lawful and unlawful’.
On the other hand, Donner (282) notes in al-Ṭabarī that Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar b. al-Zubayr understands furqān in Q 3:3 to be a faṣl (separation) between true and false regarding what the ‘parties’ (al-aḥzāb) disputed regarding Jesus, and other matters. From Donner’s words (see below), it would seem that he did not think that the Qur’an was the sole substantiation of furqān in Q 3:3. Interestingly, Donner (282) notes that al-Ṭabarī himsef ‘offers a detailed refutation of the equation of Furqān with Qurʾān by Qatāda and al-Rabīʿ, and affirms the argument of Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar b. al-Zubayr’, as otherwise God would be repeating himself in Q 3:3-4 by returning back to the Qur’an, and ‘there is no reason to repeat it another time and no benefit in repeating it’. (al-Ṭabarī’s words, translated by Donner). He therefore thinks a more general separation (faṣl), between true and false, must be in view.
Another example would be the late commentator al-Bayḍāwī (d. 7-8th/13-14th century) (Donner, 2007, 281). Commenting on Q 3:3 he says ‘by this he means a kind (jins) of divine books, for they are things that distinguish between truth and falsehood.’ This sounds like not only the Qur’an, but scriptures in general are in view.
Tafsir al-Jalalayn (15-16th centuries CE) also seems to think multiple scriptures are intended:
He revealed the Criterion al-furqān meaning the Scriptures that discriminate between truth and falsehood. He mentions this Criterion after He has mentioned the three Scriptures so that it encompasses all revealed Scriptures besides these. As for those who disbelieve in God’s signs the Qur’ān or any other revelation…
For a completely different (and implausible) view, Donner (283) notes:
Another meaning sometimes associated with furqān, especially in Q 3:3, ‘We sent down the furqān’, is the psalms (zabūr) of David, although al-Rāzī expresses his doubt about this interpretation on the grounds that the psalms are exhortations lacking in real legal content.
Does furqān refer only to the Qur’an? – examining Q 3:3-4
The reason for viewing furqān as the Qur’an is perhaps because having mentioned the Torah and the Gospel, it then says ‘and He has sent down the distinction’ (wa‑anzala l‑furqāna). We might therefore think that the Qur’an has progressed from discussing the Torah and Gospel to that which comes next, the Qur’an.
But (as pointed out to me by Adam Hardie), the Qur’an has already been mentioned at the beginning of v. 3 (‘He has sent the Scripture down to you [Prophet] with the Truth, confirming what went before…’) (this point was also noted by Paret, R. n.d., and al-Ṭabarī above). Given that ‘confirming what went before…’ then introduces the former scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel, Hardie notes that it might seem strange to return back to and repetitively repeat the Qur’an with ‘and He has sent down the distinction’. However he also notes that unlike Q 5:48, with Q 3:3-4 the previous scriptures have not been introduced in the previous verses (Q 5:41-47). So perhaps an explanatory digression as to the nature of the former scriptures takes place in Q 3:3-4, requiring a shift back in time and then forward again to the Qur’an.
The grammar of Q 5:46 – repetition or awkwardness?
However, perhaps the Qur’an simply is repetitive and/or grammatically awkward sometimes (I do not mean to be offensive, but this is how I see it). In Q 5:46 we read:
46 We sent Jesus, son of Mary, in their footsteps, to confirm the Torah that had been sent before him: We gave him the Gospel with guidance [hudan], light, and confirmation of the Torah already revealed— a guide [hudan] and lesson for those who take heed of God. [wa‑hudan wa‑mawʿiẓatan lil‑muttaqīna]
The question is what to do with the last clause ‘a guide and lesson for those who take heed of God’? If it applies to the Torah, as Pickthall, Abdel Haleem and Yusuf Ali seem to understand, this is very unclear; the section is just introduced by saying wa-hudan, literally ‘A/and a guidance…’ If this is applied to the Torah, which a moment ago was the object, not the subject, one might expect an introduction of wa-hiya (‘And it is’) or wa-kānat (‘And it was’); otherwise it might seem like we are continuing the string of adjectives applied earlier to the Gospel (fīhi hudan wa‑nūrun wa‑muṣaddiqan… wa‑hudan wa‑mawʿiẓatan lil‑muttaqīna). But if we are still discussing the Gospel (as perhaps Arberry, Droge, and The Study Qur’an), then we do have repetition – the Gospel is said to have hudan (‘guidance’/’guide’) twice.
Does furqān refer only to the Qur’an? – examining Q 3:3-4 (continued)
To add an additional grammatical point, Q 3:3 begins by mentioning that God ‘sent (nazzala) the Scripture down to you [ʿalayka]’, whereas it is said that God ‘sent down’ (nazzala) the previous scriptures. When it therefore says ‘and He has sent down (nazzala) the distinction’, it is actually closer to the language applied to the former scriptures rather than to the Qur’an (which has ʿalayka, ‘to you’). This is not clear-cut proof, but it perhaps hints that we are still dealing with the previous scripture.
Perhaps instead ‘He has sent down the distinction’ is an explanatory repetition, clarifying that the former scripture(s) were indeed the ‘criterion’. As we saw, this is indeed a term used for the Torah in Q 2:53 and Q 21:48. Admittedly it is not used for the Gospel, not surprising given the infrequency of the term; perhaps this verse is suggesting that both were in fact the furqān, or it is just referring back to the Torah. We saw above how some Islamic commentators seemed to think that more than just the Qur’an might be furqān in Q 3:3-4.
While this might sound odd to modern ears, the Qur’an does sometimes use a form of explanatory repetition, where overlapping descriptors are placed in apposition; it is often said in the Qur’an that God gives the Book AND Wisdom (e.g. Q 2:231), even though wisdom may just be one highlighted aspect of the Book (as Reynolds, 2018, 121), rather than a separate entity. Muslim tradition might disagree however; I vaguely recollect that the ‘wisdom’ may be applied to the sunna of Muhammad.
We perhaps see this feature with furqān, of furqān listed alongside, as though it were grammatically separate from, the Torah and the Qur’an. In Q 2:53 it says ‘We gave Moses the Scripture, AND the means to distinguish [right and wrong] [furqān]’ (emphasis added). Is the furqān separate from Scripture? And in Q 2:185: ‘Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also [lit: ‘and’] clear (Signs) for guidance AND judgment (Between right and wrong). [furqān]’ (Yusuf Ali translation, emphasis added). Are the ‘clear signs’ and and the ‘judgement (Between right and wrong)’/al–furqān separate from the Qur’an, also sent down in the month of Ramadan? Is it not better to see these additional statements, even though separated by ‘and’ (wa), as clarifying the nature of the Torah and the Qur’an? That these terms are overlapping is suggested by the fact that sometimes the Qur’an talks of the scripture and the furqān (e.g. Q 2:53, 2:185), and elsewhere just the furqān (Q 21:48, 25:1). And in Q 21:48 Moses and Aaron are given the furqān, AND the ‘light’, AND ‘a reminder’, even though they are all presumably talking about the same revelation.
Given this Qur’anic idiom, therefore, Q 3:4 may be taking the next step, in repeating the verb (‘he sent down’) in order to emphasise that the Torah (and Gospel?) were revealed as furqān.
But another possibility, that might better explain why the verb nazzala is repeated, is that this concluding comment in fact applies to all three of the previously mentioned scriptures (the Qur’an, the Torah and the Gospel):
Others say that [furqān] refers to the Psalms (see 17:55), or that this power of distinguishing truth from falsehood – furqān – is a second description of the three scriptures following their initial mention as a guidance to mankind, which is to say they all contain what seperates truth from falsehood, forbidden from licit, and so forth ([Fakhr al-Dīn al-]R[āzī]). (Nasr et. al, 2015, 128)
I am in no position to assess whether this is grammatically plausible; I simply note that thes idea has been suggested and can be found in Muslim literature.
The lack of an accusation of textual corruption?
Reading through the Muslim exegetical opinions mentioned by Rubin and Donner, and reading their and other works on the question of furqān, I have not come across the accusation of textual corruption of the previous scriptures. Even though works of tafsīr do often speak of distinction between ‘true and false’, I have not come across the accusation that the former scriptures are the object of ‘distinguishing’; it could simply be that the Qur’an distinguishes between ‘true and false’ in instructing its own followers, and in refuting the false doctrines of those who do not believe.
The only place I have found where it may be hinted at is Abdel Haleem’s footnote on Q 3:3-4, where he refers to Q 5:48, presumably to muhaymin ʿalayhi there (understood by many Muslims as implying textual corruption of the former scriptures, and translated by Abdel Haleem as ‘with final authority over them’).
I am happy to be corrected by those who have come across such information, either in Western scholarship or in pre-modern Muslim commentaries.
Q 3:3-4 – summary
In summary, although Q 3:3-4 is the most plausible candidate for furqān implying the textual corruption of the previous scriptures, it is by no means clearly doing so. If the furqān here is referring to the Qur’an, it may simply be understood as a guide between right and wrong, a meaning the term often has in the Qur’an. There may also be overtones of ‘salvation’ or ‘deliverance’, which understandably the Qur’an would wish to stress to its audience. It is not explicitly said to be a furqān over the previous scriptures, and there are exegetical reasons for doubting this possibility (viz. that the Qur’an immediately before is said to ‘confirm’ those scriptures, and immediately after is the warning against disbelieving in any of the signs/verses of God).
It is also possible that it is not in fact the Qur’an being described as the furqān, but the previous scripture(s). While this admittedly might not sound the most natural to modern ears, the idiom of the Qur’an does seem to put nouns and adjectives in apposition to one another, and there may here be an extension of that principle (even so far as repeating the verb nazzala). Such an understanding would also prevent a repetition in v. 3 of Qur’an back to previous scriptures, and then back to the Qur’an. It would also fit with the lingistuic usage of nazzala vs. nazzala ʿalayka.
A mediating position, which The Study Qur’an (Nasr et. al, 2015, 128) finds in al-Rāzī (whether he simply lists it or it is his position, I know not), is that the revelation of the furqān is referring to all three of the aforementioned scriptures. A similar position, that multiple scriptures are intended, can perhaps be found expressed elsewhere (see above).
Finally, I noted how I have failed to come across a pre-modern Muslim exegete, or a Western scholar (excepting perhaps Abdel Haleem) who claims that furqān implies textual corruption.
Therefore, although I am sympathetic to how a Muslim might understand Q 3:3-4 to be implying textual corruption, I would note that there are issues with this interpretation.
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