24 Apr On the Difficulty of Reading the Quran, Part B: Fighting and Killing
My previous post discussed the difficulty of reading the Qur’an. This post addresses a very specific challenging issue in Quranic translation, namely the meaning of certain ‘fighting’ verses.
There are many verses in the Quran which refer to fighting and killing. I would like to consider the difficulty inherent in reading verses which attempt to translate the verb qātilū, found, for example, in Sura 9:29 ‘Fight the People of the Book…’; Sura 2:190 ‘Fight in the path of Allah those who fight you’ or Sura 2:193 ‘Fight them until there is no more temptation (fitna)’.
There is a difficulty with the English translation ‘fight’, as found in many published translations. The problem is that ‘fight’ is a deficient translation. To understand why this it is deficient, we need to ‘slow down’ our reading process to the extent of engaging with Arabic grammar.
To understand what the word qātilū means, one needs to recognize that it is based upon a root q-t-l which means ‘kill’. (See the note at the end of this post on Arabic roots). From this root several other Arabic words are form for example qatala ‘kill, murder’; qatīl ‘someone killed, a casualty’; qatl ‘homicide’; maqtal ‘vital spot on the body (injuring which brings death)’.
The meaning of words for taking life are highly culture-specific. The modern English distinction between ‘murder’ and ‘kill’ goes back to early Germanic cultural norms in which it was regarded as a heinous and disgraceful crime to kill someone secretly. for example when they were sleeping. Such an act was ‘murder’ (Old English morðor). In contrast, killing someone openly in broad daylight was not a disgrace, if it was not concealed or denied, but the killing nevertheless could be subject to vengeance and demands for blood-compensation. Over time the meaning of murder evolved to reach its current meaning, which is intentional unlawful killing done with ‘malice aforethought’. Throughout this evolution the very negative connotations of the word murder have endured.
In contrast to English, in Arabic there is no single distinct word for ‘murder’. If you look up ‘murder’ and ‘kill’ in an English-Arabic dictionary, most likely the first option in both cases will be q-t-l. The semantic range of q-t-l covers both ‘murder’ and ‘kill’. There is a distinction in Islamic law between lawful and unlawful killing, but both types of killing are referred to under the semantic range of the root q-t-l.
The form qātilū, which we are focusing on here, is known as a ‘form III’ verb. A feature of many form III verbs is that they denote an intentional, sustained activity directed towards an object, which may be in the context of a counter-effort. For example form I kataba means ‘he wrote’, but the form III verb kātaba means ‘he kept up a correspondence with someone’. Form I ḍaraba means ‘he hit’ but form III ḍāraba means ‘he fought against’. The form I verb ṭarada means ‘he drove away, pushed away’, but form III ṭārada means ‘he assaulted, launched an attack, stalked, gave chase to.’ Form I sāma means ‘he offered for sale’, but the form III verb sāwama means ‘he haggled over a price’. (For an essay on the meaning of ‘form III’ verbs, see here – a PDF).
The form I qatala means ‘he killed’, but the corresponding form III qātala is the normal word used in the Qur’an for doing battle, hence the standard translation ‘fight’. The fact that this is a form III verb would lead one to expect a meaning ‘he engaged in intentional and sustained activity with the purpose of killing, in a context of a counter-effort to kill.’ This is not the same meaning as English fight. In English, fight means to engage in a physical struggle for supremacy (with various non-physical, metaphorical extensions). Although fight could involve killing, it does not necessarily imply it. A contest between boxers is a fight, as is a wrestling match between boys in a school yard.
In contrast the Arabic form III qātala (qātilū in the 2nd person plural imperative), which is translated as ‘fight’ in English versions of the Quran, includes the meaning of killing.
The idea that the form III verb involves killing is expressed in the following verse, which justifies ‘fighting’ in the sacred month on the grounds that although ‘fighting’ (q-t-l form III) is a great sin, seducing Muslims away from Islam is worse than ‘killing’ (q-t-l form I). Therefore fighting (i.e. to kill) is justified because it is prevents a sin worse than such killing:
They ask you about fighting [q-t-l form III] in the sacred month. Say “Fighting [q-t-l form III] in it is a great (sin), … but seduction is greater (worse) than killing [q-t-l form I].” (Sura 2:217)
Another verse in the Quran captures the meaning of form III of q-t-l as each side trying to kill the other:
Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth; for theirs (in return) is Paradise. They fight [q-t-l form III] in his path; they kill [q-t-l form I] and are killed [q-t-l form I]. (Sura 9:111).
Arabic has another root ‘-r-k which can be used to describe conflict ranging from an argument between neighbors through to military battle, without the meaning of killing, but the words formed from q-t-l all have meanings which involve killing.
The form III of q-t-l is very difficult to translate into English. To simply translate qātilū as ‘Fight!’ is deficient, because the sense of ‘killing’ is lost in translation. However no word in English means ‘intentional sustained activity directed at another with the purpose of killing, in a context of a counter-effort to kill’. None of the English expressions with meanings similar to fight – such as combat, assault, wage war, do battle or duel – include killing as part of their core meaning.
In contrast the form III of q-t-l implies that killing is involved. It suggests a kill-or-be-killed struggle, a ‘fight’ where death is in view, one way or another.
In English cultural understandings, the purpose of war is not to kill your opponents, but to defeat them (killing is merely a means of defeating the enemy). In contrast, the form III of q-t-l reflects a different understanding of combat, one which is ultimately based upon pre-Islamic Arab culture, in which the point of battle is either to bring one’s enemies down to the grave, or to subjugate them, after which the vanquished owe you their lives.
Of course people who speak English are quite capable of deliberate killing, and all kinds of atrocities (history gives plenty of examples), and there can be a good deal of hypocrisy in English-language discussions of warfare, but the fact is that there is no word in the English language which captures the idea of ‘deadly combat’ which appears to be part of the meaning of the form III of q-t-l. In any case, to simply translate qātilū as ‘fight’ offers a watered-down reading which dilutes a core aspect of the meaning of the Arabic, and distances the text from its cultural context. It squeezes the Arabic text into the presuppositions of an English understanding of conflict.
When Sura 9:29 is translated as ‘Fight the People of the Book’, without any qualification, this misleads English speaking readers. Clearer might be ‘Engage in a deadly fight with the People of the Book’. And when Sura 9:123 says ‘O you who believe, fight the disbelievers who are close to you’, this could be better translated as ‘Fight a deadly war against the disbelievers’.
It must be stressed once again that form III of q-t-l is the normal way to refer to military fighting in Qur’anic Arabic. However this fact alone is not enough to make English fight an accurate translation, because the Arabic lexicon encodes a very different understanding of combat.
These observations have implications for understanding the Islamic sharia’s rules of combat. They align, for example, with the observation that the sharia law allows adult male captives of war to be killed, since killing is integral to the meaning of qitāl ‘fighting’, and when you vanquish someone, their lives are considered to be in your hand. On the other hand, in English cultural understandings of ‘fighting’, killing unarmed captives is considered a criminal act.
This difference in understanding what ‘fighting’ actually is has a very practical impact on how battles are fought on the ground today. Jihadis in Iraq understand that if they capture American soldiers, they are free to kill them, but if they throw down their arms and put their hands in the air, their American enemies are not supposed to kill them, but are expected by their superiors to take the jihadis prisoner.
These cultural differences create the conditions for an asymmetrical war. American soldiers dislike the fact that if they are captured, they will most likely be killed, but if they capture and execute an enemy they could be found guilty of murder by a US military tribunal.
As another implication of these cultural differences, when in Sura 9:29 it says to ‘fight [form III qātilū] the People of the Book’ ‘until they pay tribute out of hand and are humbled’, the meaning conveyed by the use of qātala is that paying tribute and being humbled are what stops the deadly war, i.e. submission to the sharia rules for non-Muslims stops the killing.
This simple observation about the dynamics of Islamic conquest of non-Muslim peoples is amply confirmed by a large corpus of opinions of Islamic scholars on this verse, dozens of which are referenced in my book The Third Choice. The eminent commentator Al-Suyuti explained in relation to Koran 29:46 (the very same verse cited at the head of the Amman letter to the Pope, which was discussed in my previous blog post) that when non-Muslims reject the arguments of Muslims and refuse to surrender to Islam, “by fighting you and refusing to pay the jizya, then argue with them by means of the sword until they become Muslim or pay the jizya.” (the Arabic text is here).
This is also relevant for understanding the theological background of recent massacres of non-Muslims in Muslim countries, in the context of claims being made by some that the non-Muslims do not enjoy the benefit of a ‘covenant of protection’ which grants them their right to life.
What is in a word? Quite a lot actually. The act of reading requires strenuous efforts to unpack the meaning of even a single word. I have described here some of the efforts needed to understand the word ‘fight’, as used in English translations of the Quran.
All this highlights the difficulty of reading classical Islamic texts, not least of all in translation. In part it also explains why Westerners, schooled in the linguistic norms of ‘Standard Average European’ languages, have so much difficulty understanding Islam, and why translations of the Quran into English are inadequate for comprehending its message.
PS In releasing this post I note that I welcome comments and clarifications, as it is quite likely there are aspects to this complex and sublte issue which I have missed or not understood fully.
Arabic words are built up around consonantal roots. Most of these roots consist of three consonants, which can be used in a wide variety of combinations with vowels and consonants. For example the root k-t-b has to do with writing, and from it can be derived kataba ‘write’; kitab ‘book’; kutubī bookseller’ miktāb ‘typewriter’ kātib ‘scribe’ etc. In Arabic script the root consonants stand out very clearly, and dictionaries are organized around them. For example maktaba ‘library, bookstore’ is listed in an Arabic dictionary under the entry for k-t-b.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.