Some Suggestions to Qur'an Translators


Two of God's ninety-nine "Most Beautiful Names," namely, alRahman and al-Rahim, are the most frequently mentioned in the Qur'an. Apart from several instances in the text, we find them joined together in the "Opening" (B 'Surah I)1 and in the first verse of all B 'Surahs, but one. Macdonald renders them as: "The Compassionate Com- passionator."2 As the Arabic root of both these epithets is r h m, this rendering may be accepted as a correct literal translation. In B 'Surah XII.64, 92, however, this meaning is expressed by the words: Arham al-Rahimin.

The English, French, and German translators seem reluctant to accept the notion that because these two attributes have the same root in Arabic, they are merely a repetition. They translate, therefore, both words differently.

For the purpose of this paper I shall quote a few divergent translations as follows:

"The most merciful God" (Sale), "The merciful the compassionate" (Arberry, Bell, Palmer), "The compassionate the merciful" (Rodwell, Dawood), "The Beneficient the Merciful" (Pickthall, Muhammad Ali). Blachere translates in French: "Le Bienfaiteur Misericordieux," and Masson: "Celui qui fait misdricorde, le misericordieux," while the Germans render them as: "Des Erbarmers, des Barmherzigen" (Henning and Paret in 1950) and "Des Barmherzigen and Gutigen" (Paret in 1966).3 "Des Gnadigen des Barmherzigen" (Mahmud Ahmad, Pakistan 1959), "Des allbarmherzigen Gottes" (Grigull), "Des Allbarmherzigen" (Ullmann-Winter, 1964).

These various efforts to avoid repetition, together with the fact that among the ninety-nine names we find another attribute-al-Ra'uf--that also connotes "the merciful" or "the compassionate," make al-Rahim look really repetitious and superfluous.

To avoid this, I humbly suggest, in my translation of the Qur'an into modern Hebrew, which I am now preparing, to interpret al-Rahim as "the Beloved." I base my proposition on the following grounds:

(1) The Arabic and Hebrew root r h m denotes two main emotions: love and compassion. They seem to be strongly related to the name r h m in both languages, which denotes, according to the dictionaries, "womb," but originally meant "a female," a "mother." A relic with such a meaning is found in Judg. 5:30, where Rehem Rahamatayim means "a female or two." The ancient man, observing the natural love and compassion in the behavior of a mother toward the offsprings of her womb, called these emotions by the name the mother was known to him, that is, r h m.

(2) However, these two names for the emotions of a mother did not enjoy an equal development. In Arabic and Hebrew the root was mainly used to denote "compassion," although we find a trace for its use for "love" in verse 2 of Psalm 18, where the words Erhamha Adonay mean: "I love thee my Lord." In Aramaic, another sister language, the root r h m was used to denote only "love" and not "compassion." In the Aramaic translations of the Bible, wherever the Hebrew root a h b ("to love") appears, it is translated by the root r h m. The use of rahim denoting "beloved" must have been well known amongst the Jews in the centuries preceding Islam, like its twin, rahum. Even in modern Hebrew, Aramaic phrases with such meanings are used, for example, Aha Rahima'I for "my beloved brother." Consequently, the Aramaic translation of the word Erhamaha (Ps. 18:2) is given as Ahabbinak from a root similar to the Hebrew a h b and the Arabic Habba ("love"), which is used in the Qur'an in the verses dealing with the love for God, as follows:

(a) In B' Surah 11.160 (Per Bell's translation) a warning is given to the pagans "who love their idols with a love like that given to Allah."

(b) In B' Surah 111.29 it is said: " If you love Allah follow me and Allah will love you." This is repeated also in B' Surah v. 59.

(3) The love for God is therefore an essential element in the relation between Allah and his creatures. In the ninety-nine attributes, however, we find only one epithet describing God's love, namely, al-Wadud, that is, "the very loving," and nothing about God being loved. We have to remember that the love for God forms a most important part of the Jewish faith. In the Shema, the children of Israel are ordered: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). Muhammad repeatedly declares in the Qur'an that he came to confirm the Bible. He makes several allusions to the Shema and accuses the children of Israel of not complying with its contents (e.g., Qur'an 11.87, IV.48, VIII.21).

(4) The resemblance of the Aramaic attribute al-Rahim to the Arabic root r h m caused one of the most important precepts of the faith, "to love God," to be overlooked. It can easily be rectified by interpreting al-Rahim to mean "the Beloved." This will restore it to its appropriate meaningful position as the third one amongst God's other attributes.

My proposition to place the epithet al-Rahim in its rightful dignified position does not preclude the use of it as an adjective in its "compassionate" sense. In all verses in which it is joined to a different root where an allegation of repetition is excluded, it certainly can be translated "the compassionate," and so in many other instances where the context so requires, for example, al-Tawwab al-Rahim, Ra'uf Rahim.

The Basmallah should therefore be translated: "In the name of God the compassionate the beloved."


The name FirPown (Pharaoh) appears several times in the Qur'an but only in two verses with the epithet: Du al-Awtad (Q. XXXVIII.2 and LXXXIX.9). The following different translations were given to this adjective:

"Pharaoh the contriver of the stakes." (Sale)

"Pharaoh the impaler." (Rodwell, Dawood)

"Pharaoh the lord of the hosts." (Muhamad Ali)

"Pharaoh of the Stakes." (Bell)

"Pharaoh, he of the tent-pegs." (Arberry)

The German and French translation adopt similar renderings, which make no sense and have no basis whatsoever. Now, the word awtad appears only three times in the Qur'an: twice in the above-mentioned verses and once again in LXXVIII.7, where mountains are described as awtad. Relying on this passage it should be translated, "Pharaoh of the mountains." However, the only mountains a Bedouin could see in Egypt were the Pyramids, which look from far away like pointed tent-pegs, that is, awtad.

I therefore suggest that Fir'own du al-Awtad should be translated as: "Pharaoh of the Pyramids," which is a most fitting and sensible translation based on the Qur'an itself.


1. My contention is that "Surah" is an arabicized form of the Hebrew name 171'01 B' surah, that is, Gospel, given to the Christian Gospels during the early centuries of Christianity and adopted in the Qur'an for "revelation."

2. Short Enc. of Islam, p. 34.

3. Paret explains this change "aus rein stilistischen grunden."

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!