Errors in English Translations of the Quran


What are the Characteristics of a Model Muslim Woman?

Verse 66:5 lists some ideal characteristics of an appreciative woman. The last three characteristics, however, have been mistranslated.

! Disputed passage: The traditional rendering emphasizes virginity.

Yusuf Ali Pickthall Shakir Reformist
“It may be, if he divorced you (all), that God will give him in exchange Consorts better than you—who submit (their wills), who believe, who are devout, who turn to God in repentance, who worship (in humility), who travel (for Faith) and fast, previously married or virgin.” (66:5) It may happen that his Lord, if he divorce you, will give him in your stead wives better than you, submissive (to Allah), believing, pious, penitent, devout, inclined to fasting, widows and maids. (66:5) Maybe, his Lord, if he divorces you, will give him in your place wives better than you, submissive, faithful, obedient, penitent, adorers, fasters, widows and virgins. (66:5) “If he divorces you, his Lord will substitute other wives in your place who are better than you; peacefully surrendering (to God), acknowledging, devout, repentant, serving, active in their societies, responsive, and foremost ones.” (66:5)


Traditional translations mistranslate the last three adjectives used here to describe Muslim women. They distort their meaning as “fasters, widows and virgins.” When the issue is about women, somehow, the meaning of the Quranic words passes trough rapid mutations. For instance, we know that the Sunni and Shiite scholars who could not beat cows and examples found it convenient and fair to beat women (see 4:34). Those of us who have rejected other religious sources besides the Quran are still struggling to clean our minds from these innovations that even have sneaked into the Arabic language long after the revelation of the Quran. There is, in fact, nothing whatsoever about fasting, widows and virgins in this verse. We are rediscovering and relearning the Quran.

The third word from the end of the verse, SaYiHat, which we have translated as “active in their societies” simply means to travel or move around for a cause. About two century after the revelation of the Quran, when the rights of women were one by one were taken through all-male enterprises called hadith, ijtihad and tafseer, Muslim communities found themselves thinking and living like the enemies of Islam in the Days of Ignorance. The misogynistic mind of orthodox commentators and translators simply could not fathom the notion of a Muslim woman traveling around alone to do anything – and so they pretended that the word in question was not SaYaHa, but SsaWM – fasting! Socially active women were indeed more difficult to control than the women who would fast in their homes; they were even less costly, since they would eat less. For the usage of the verb form of the root, see 9:2. The word SaYaHa has nothing to do with fasting; the Quran consistently uses the word SaWaMa for fasting (2:183-196; 4:92; 5:89,90; 19:26; 33:35; 58:4).

The second word from the end is THaYiBat, which means “those who return” or “those who are responsive”. Various derivatives of the same root are used to mean “reward” or “refuge” or “cloths”. For instance, see 2:125; 3:195. The Arabic words for widow are ARMiLa or AYaMa. The Quran uses AYaMa for widow or single; see: 24:32.

The last word of this verse, aBKaR, which means those who are “young,” “early risers” or “foremost,” has traditionally, and implausibly, been interpreted as “virgins” in this passage. The resulting distorted meaning of the verse supports a sectarian teaching that justifies a man marrying more than one virgin. The Arabic word for virgin is BaTuL or ADRa.

Here, I will focus only on the last word.

This false interpretation has become so popular that it is apparently now considered beyond any challenge. We have not seen any published translation (except Edip Yuksel’s Turkish translation, Mesaj) that does not duplicate this centuries-old error. It is particularly important, therefore, that we explain exactly why we have translated this verse as we have.

The Arabic root of the word we have translated as “foremost” is BKR, and it occurs 10 times in the Quran. In seven of these occurrences, the word describes time; in two (including the present verse) it describes women; and in one case it describes a heifer.

Before deciding that aBKaR means “virgin,” the translator should look closely at how the Quran itself employs the root word. Here are the references in Quranic sequence:

  • 2:68   —>        Young (heifer)
  • 3:41   —>        Early morning
  • 19:11 —>        Early morning
  • 19:62 —>        Early morning
  • 25:5   —>        Early morning
  • 33:42 —>        Early morning
  • 48:9   —>        Early morning
  • 54:38 —>        Early morning
  • 56:36 —>        ??? Woman
  • 66:5   —>        ??? Woman
  • 76:25 —>        Early morning

When this word is used in reference to women (in 56:36 and 66:5), orthodox scholars, without hesitation, leap to translate it as “virgin.” We reject this interpretation, and choose instead to translate the word as “foremost.”

Reportedly, one of the earliest converts to Islam, and the first elected Islamic leader after the death of Muhammad, was his father-in-law, a man who became known to Muslims as Abu Bakr. Abu means “father.” This nickname was not given to Muhammad’s father-in-law because he was the “Father of a Virgin”! Being the father of a virgin was not something unique, since every father of a daughter would deserve such a title at one time in their lives. Besides, Abu Bakr’s daughter did not remain virgin; she married Muhammad and was called by many as the “mother of Muslims.” Some sources relate the name to “young camels.” However, the best explanation must be related to his standing among Muslims. Abu Bakr was one of the foremost ones, one of the progressive ones, one of the early risers, one of the first converts to Islam. He was foremost – or, if you prefer, progressive.

We must note, too, the Arabic conjunction Wa (and), which appears before the word aBKaR (foremost ones). The end of the verse has traditionally been mistranslated, as though the word were actually OR:

“… previously married OR virgins”.

The traditional commentators and translators knew full well that a contradiction might present itself had they translated Wa accurately:

“… previously married AND virgins”.

We have chosen to render this passage as “responsive and foremost,” thereby retaining a legitimate alternate translation of the word traditionally translated “previously married” – as well as the impossible-to-evade “and” of the Arabic text.

There is, however, a portrait of the ideal Muslima (female Muslim): submitting, acknowledging, devoted, repentant, worshipful, active in her society, responsive and foremost.

Was Muhammad Illiterate?

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