Questioning the Qur’an #48:9

لِّتُؤْمِنُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِۦ وَتُعَزِّرُوهُ وَتُوَقِّرُوهُ وَتُسَبِّحُوهُ بُكْرَةًۭ وَأَصِيلًا

The Question: Does this verse commit Shirk (Idolatry)?

‘In order that ye (O men) may believe in Allah and His Messenger, that ye may assist and honour Him, and celebrate His praise morning and evening.’

Yusuf Ali

As I examine this verse, I notice that a man is placed alongside God, not just in the phrase ‘bil-lahi warasulihi’ (in Allah and his messenger), but more importantly, in the application of a trinity of verbs: watu’azziruhu, watuwaqqiruhu, watusabbihuhu which as we shall see, exalt the messenger, putting him on the same level as God as one to be worshipped.

Grammar

Let’s begin by looking at the grammatical cohesion of this verbal phrase. By that I mean that all of these verbs are identical in their grammar.

According to corpus.quran.com, all the three verbs begin with the conjunction wa (and). They are all 2nd person masculine plural verbs (form II) – in the imperfect tense and subjunctive mood. And finally, the object of the verb in each case refers to a 3rd person masculine singular object.

In other words, the verbs are all possible (that’s the idea of the subjunctive mood) and continuing (that’s the imperfect tense) actions carried out by all of ‘you’ (ie: those who believe) towards ‘him’ (a single object). This unity among the three distinct verbs (a kind of trinity) really necessitates all the verbs acting as one cohesive whole towards the single object.

The question then is who is this single object?

In the verse, two objects are given: ‘Allah and his messenger’, but these verbs cannot refer to both. We must choose one. Now the closest noun to the verbs is the ‘messenger’, and the thought flow in the verse would develop naturally if we associate the collection of three verbs to the messenger. In this case, reading from verse 8, we find the plural pronoun for Allah telling the messenger he has been sent to bring good news and to warn, so that – verse 9 – the people may believe in Allah and and further in his messenger, demonstrating their allegiance to the messenger through these three actions (we’ll discuss specifics in a moment). Verse 10 continues this thought, stating: ‘Indeed, those who pledge allegiance to you’ (the messenger), or we could say, those who act in the way prescribed in verse 9, ‘are actually pledging allegiance to Allah‘ [Sahih International], returning out thoughts back full circle to belief in Allah at the beginning of verse 9.

The other option is to say that all of these actions in verse 9 refer to Allah. This is the view that many Islamic commentators take, and I can understand why they want to say this when we look at the verbs themselves, but this then makes the whole thought sequence from verse 8 to 10 very disjointed. Indeed, it makes the phrase at the beginning of verse 10 unnecessary and out of place. If the believers in Allah are already demonstrating their faith in Allah through the three actions stated in verse 9, it would make no sense to then say: ‘Indeed, those who pledge allegiance to [the messenger] – they are actually pledging allegiance to Allah’. This contextual argument is for me a very strong reason to believe, contrary to the Islamic scholars, that the single object is the messenger.

The reason why Muslims will not accept what seems to be, contextually, the most plausible explanation, is because they cannot accept the theology that will result from ascribing all of these actions as towards ‘the messenger’. Some do see the contextual flow and attribute the first two verbs as being directed to ‘the messenger’, but must of theological necessity attribute the last as towards Allah, and in doing so, break up the obvious unity between the three verbs. EG: Sahih International – ‘That you [people] may believe in Allah and His Messenger and honor him and respect the Prophet and exalt Allah morning and afternoon.

Others see the unity between the verbs, see the theological necessity of attributing the last verb to Allah, and thus attribute all the verbs as unto Allah. ‘The pronouns belong to God (glory be to Him) … Whosoever breaks up the pronouns, has gone far. (Az-Zamakhshari, Tafsir-ul-Kashaf, Commentary on Surah 48:9, Source) This however, as we’ve said, causes a breakdown in the contextual flow, and raises further theological questions in regard to the first verb. So let’s look into these three verbs and try to understand more fully what the verse is saying.

Meanings

Watu’azziruhu – from the root AZR, meaning to aid, assist, strengthen, or to treat with reverence, veneration, respect or honour [Arabic-English Lexicon, Lane, 1863]. It is found three times in Qur’an: here, in 5:12 and in 7:157. In both Surah 5 and Surah 7, the word is clearly used in reference to God’s messengers, and is further reason to believe these three verbs are to be attributed to ‘the messenger’.

Those Muslim scholars trying to argue that this refers to ‘assisting’ Allah, end up confirming the opposite anyway – EG: ‘the meaning of “assisting God” is assisting His Religion and His Messenger.’ (Az-Zamakhshari, Tafsir-ul-Kashaf) `

Watuwaqqiruhu – from the root WQR, meaning to exalt or esteem highly; to give to someone/something the fullest honour they are worthy of [Ar-En Lex, Lane]. It is found only here in Qur’an. Those who agree with our conclusion that the first verb is directed towards the messenger, have no problem in doing the same with this verb – EG: Sahih International and Muhsin Khan translations. Therefore, no more need be said about this verb here.

The key verb in this discussion however is the following, and the one that places us in a dilemma. From the discussion so far the context, flow of thought, and unity between the verbs would lead us to see this verb, as with the others, being attributed to ‘the messenger’.

Watusabbihuhu – from the root SBH, meaning to praise, glorify, magnify or wonder at [Ar-En Lex, Lane]. If our argument so far is accurate, then this verse is raising a man to a place reserved for God alone. This is clearly the understanding of the Qur’an as a whole, for the verb is found 42 times in the Qur’an and in every other occasion, it refers to the exaltation of God by angels and mankind. If however, we are to be consistent across the Qur’an, as with watu’azziruhu above, then we must take this verb to be referring to our glorifying or exalting of God, not the messenger, and hence the dilemma.

Let me explain more clearly.

The Dilemma

First, by reading Surah 48:8-10 with an open mind, we find that the overall context and flow of thought lead us to conclude that all three verbs refer to ‘the messenger’.

Second, the first two verbs, when specifically examined, refer clearly to assisting and honouring ‘the messenger’.

Third, the unity between the verbs necessitates one single object of all three, and as the first two are clearly referring to ‘the messenger’, the third must be also.

This all comes from an open-minded reading of the text, letting the text itself guide us to the conclusion that ‘the messenger’ is to be, not only assisted and honoured but, exalted and praised, and this commits shirk.

Clearly, this contradicts the overall message of the Qur’an, and the foundational doctrine of tawhid, and is why no Muslim would want to attribute the third verb (Watusabbihuhu) to ‘the messenger’.

Therefore we are left with a dilemma. Let Surah 48:9,10 speak for itself, interpret it as it stands on its own, and it will undermine the whole Qur’an. Interpret Surah 48:9 in the light of the whole Qur’an and you end up with an interpretation that is of course consistent with the whole Qur’an (you’ve made it so), but in doing so, Surah 48:9,10 becomes contextually disjointed and meaningless.

Conclusion

Whichever choice you make in your interpretation of Surah 48:9, one thing is clear: the presence of this dilemma proves the Qur’an to be simply a work of man. It is not the final revelation of God – that is Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, who is worthy ‘to receive glory and honour and power: for [He] has created all things, and for [His] pleasure they are and were created’ (Revelation 4:11)

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