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Polysemous Issues in Rendering Jihad Verses
By Dr. Sayed Ismail
Translating religious terms and expressions, particularly polysemous concepts like jihād, is an intriguing area of research, since non-Muslim perceptions of Islam and Muslims are largely contingent upon their understanding of these translations. A translator’s presuppositions exercise considerable influence on his/her rendition of religious concepts. At heart, the greatest issue in translating the religious text hinges on whether it may be considered conceptually untranslatable. An important issue regarding the translation of jihād is that religious expressions and terms are components of ancient and classical texts ‘travelling’ from the past to the present; this alone brings about a number of significant problems in their understanding, interpretation, and translation. It has not yet been established whether religious terms like jihād preserve their meanings unchanged across time and space, or whether they are transformative and changeable.
The original transliterated verse: Anfirū Khifāfāan Wa Thiqālāan Wa Jāhidū Bi’amwālikum Wa ‘Anfusikum Fī Sabīli Allāhi Dhālikum Khayrun Lakum ‘In Kuntum Ta`lamūna (42, al-Tauba).
The Translator's cultural and religious background: Dr. Muhammad Mahmoud Ghali was born in 1920 in Egypt. He was the Professor of Linguistics and Islamic Studies, Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt. Dr. Ghali has spent 20 years interpreting the meanings of the Quran into English.
His Translation: Dr. Ghali (1997) translates this as: “March out, light and heavy! And strive with your riches and yourselves in the way of Allah. That is most charitable for you, in case you know (42, al-Tauba).”
The translator oversimplifies the meaning of Khifāfāan Wa Thiqālāan as “light and heavy.” The phrase “light and heavy” offers open-ended meanings. For example, it can be interpreted as ‘healthy and sick’ and ‘rich or poor’ and represents an irrevocable divine order that jihād is an individual duty that has to be imposed on every Muslim regardless of his sex, age, healthy conditions, social status. However, this interpretation contradicts the principle that jihād is a collective duty, which, if it is performed by some people, those remaining are exempted from it. It turns jihād into an absolutely individual duty that must be imposed on every Muslim.
Additionally, it contradicts the following verse which was claimed to have abrogated it: “There is no blame on those who are infirm, or ill, or who find no resources to spend (on the cause), if they are sincere (in duty) to Allah and His Messenger: no ground (of complaint) can there be against such as do right: and Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” (At-Tawba: 91). In addition, this verse was revealed to the prophet during the conquest of Tabuk: some men and women did not join the Muslim army in this invasion and were not criticized by the Prophet. As such, if it is translated as “light and heavy,” the meaning of the verse contradicts the Sunnah and other verses of the Quran itself. As such, translating it as “light and heavy” requires the translator to render Wa Jāhidū as “to fight” rather than “to strive.” Indeed, with such an abrogated verse that contradicting the mainstream narrative of the hadith, revealing the suppressed narrative is a priority for a translator to offer an accurate and precise translation. According to the principle entailing that jihād is a collective duty, if this verse is abrogated by translating it as “light and heavy” it is a misleading and incorrect translation that suppresses the narrative of the Sunnah and other Qurnaic verses. The translator accentuates that the concept of jihād may have meanings different from “to fight” and these meanings can be deduced by the reader. Here, a particular translation is accentuated representing a particular ideology at the expense of providing an accurate and clear translation.