Skye and I are reading slightly different translations of the Quran in an effort to have a better understanding of what we’re actually reading. Usually this results in us having interesting discussions parsing word choices, and eventually feeling like we have a pretty good idea of what the spirit of the actual text is. In this verse though, we have a tiny word difference that makes the verse mean completely different things and it lead to an interesting conversation that basically resulted in neither of being quite sure what was intended.
My copy reads
Thus We have made you a middle nation, so that you may act as witnesses for mankind, and the Messenger may be a witness for you.
Skye’s version reads
Thus We have made you a middle nation, so that you may act as witnesses against mankind, and the Messenger may be a witness against you.
(emphasis mine in both cases)
Other translations have that disputed word as “over” which seems to be more neutral, you shall be a witness neither for nor against, but simply of what is true, and is also what I found in several internet translations of the text. This seems to be more in the spirit of what else I have seen in this chapter, that those who ignore the word of Allah will suffer (see Al-Baqarah 6-7) while those who follow His commands are rewarded (See Al-Baqarah 112). This translation puts the witness in a more neutral position to simply attest to what was to allow for proper punishment or reward, which of course is not actually required given that the text also reports that Allah knows all (Al-Baqarah 115b), it is still in the character of Allah (as I understand it) to require witnesses that men may know their wrongdoing and repent before they die (Al-Baqarah 132b “…do not let death overtake you, except when you are in a state of submission”)
The other word I found whilst searching was “to” as in “that you may act as a witness to mankind, and the Messenger may be a witness to you.” (as seen here) In my understanding of this translation, this would be saying that Muhammad is to tell the people of God’s word and they are then to spread it to those who do not hear it directly from him.
I’m not sure which of these various translations is the correct one, but I feel that it has given me a lot to think about regarding the character of the Muslim God and what he is asking of his people, if they are to reveal the truth to others or to hold each other accountable to His words. I suspect that the most likely is that it is some combination of all of these, that here Muslims are called to witness to and over others, that all may fall in line with the word of Allah as found in the Quran. In any case, this has made me more aware of the power of tiny little prepositions, and the meaning they can carry with them, which in turn makes me more aware of paying attention to the words I am reading and to trying to make sure that we talk through all the little differences we find in our translations to make sure that we aren’t just skimming and going through the motions of this project.