Responses to Islamic Awareness

Will Jesus burn in Hell?!

(The argument from grammar)

In their article, Muhammad Ghoniem & M S M Saifullah have done some really nice work in an attempt to refute this argument, but I am sorry to inform them that it is not that easy. Saifullah and Ghoniem tell us that they base their reply on the meaning of the verse - which is a good thing to do. In order to understand the meaning of any verse, we must study the verse within the context in which it was written. Let us now see what it really says.

Saifullah and Ghoniem tell us:

"The word "" translated as "what" (and underlined with red) in verse 21:98 is used to refer to things/objects and seldom would it refer to people. Otherwise, it would be "man" (i.e. who or whom). Thus Jesus(P) is not referred to in that verse. This verse would rather refer to idols worshipped by the pagan Arabs who lived in the time of Prophet Muhammad"

Actually, the the Quran itself doesn't help them out here. Sura 109:2-5 says:

I worship not that which ye worship,
nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship,
nor will ye worship that which I worship.

The word Yusuf Ali translated four times as "that which" is "MA", the same word as in 21:98 (cf. transliteration below). So, we have one of two choices to make here:

1. We agree with Saifullah and Ghoniem's argument that "Ma" refers to things/objects, therefore, "Muslims worship a thing or an object"


2. The word "Ma" means both people and things. Therefore, Jesus and the Angels were included in Sura 21:98.

The word "Ma" here means "Alathi" (a synonym of it). This can be translated as "who" or "which" depending on the translator's understanding of the word.

There is one more thing I would like to ask: What does Sura 21:101 mean? If ma is for things, then why didn't Mohammed say so putting an end to the debate on this subject? Doesn't this verse state the Quran's agreement with the Arabs' understanding for "Ma"?

Anyway, I still think it was a nice try.

Bassam Khoury

Since not everything was clear to me, and after further discussions with Bassam, I would like to point out a few more observations - hopefully clarifying the short comments above for the readers who are like myself not conversant with Arabic.

Comparing 21:98 and 109:2, we not only find the same relative pronoun "ma", but the whole phrase translated as "what you worship" or "that which ye worship" is identical in the Arabic original.

Sura 21:98 : Innakum wama taAAbudoona min dooni Allahi hasabu jahannama antum laha waridoona.

Sura 109:2 : La aAAbudu ma taAAbudoona.

[Note: All Roman transliterations of the Arabic Qur'an are taken from]

Given that 109 is one of the short suras at the end of the Qur'an - and as such among those that are often memorized first by Muslims - it is hardly comprehensible that Ghoniem and Saifullah were not aware of it, all the more as this sura contains the same verse twice (vv. 3 & 5) for emphasis by repetition, using "ma" for "that which" Muhammad worships. Even those who do not speak Arabic, can readily see that the words and grammatical construction is absolutely identical to the one used for the object of worship by the pagan Arabs.

Again, Sura 109:2-5 :

I worship not that which ye worship, (2)
nor will ye worship that which I worship. (3)
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship, (4)
nor will ye worship that which I worship. (5)

The Arabic transliteration of this passage:

La aAAbudu ma taAAbudoona.
Wala antum AAabidoona ma aAAbudu.
Wala ana AAabidun ma AAabadtum.
Wala antum AAabidoona ma aAAbudu.

To better understand Bassam's last paragraph above, let me also add the transliteration of Sura 21:101 :

Inna allatheena sabaqat lahum minna alhusna ola-ika AAanha mubAAadoona

The translation of 21:101 including the explanation by Ibn Ishaq was given by Ghoniem and Saifullah themselves in these words:

"Those who have received kindness from us in the past will be removed far from it and will not hear its sound and they abide eternally in their heart's desire", i.e., Jesus Son of Mary and `Uzayr and those rabbis and monks who have lived in obedience to God, whom the erring people worship as lords beside God. [coloring and bold face for emphasis are mine]

In other words, when the author of the Qur'an patched up the original "revelation" that had caused the unintentional and troublesome understanding pointed out by `Abdullah Ibn az-Zibi`ra, he used "alatheen" (plural of "alathi", the above mentioned synonym of "ma") to refer to Jesus, Ezra etc. (people, not things) whom he wants to exclude from Hell through this extension of his "revelation"! If they had not been included in 21:98, there were no necessity to exclude them in 21:101 and this verse would have no reason to exist, let alone in a book that claims to have existed from eternity unchanged. For details on the historical circumstances how this passage came into being, see this page.

Finally, we fully agree with the principle stated again - as so often before (repetitio ad nauseam) - by Ghoniem and Saifullah at the end of their article, i.e., "that the best tafsīr of the Qur'ān is Qur'ān itself ... (different parts of the Qur'ān explain each other). ... Such an exegesis involves the use of Context & Internal Relationships."

One needs to choose, however, the proper context (it is sometimes enough to look ahead three verses - from 21:98 to 21:101 - instead of jumping 22 chapters), and using the most applicable, the closest internal relationship (like identical phrases as in 21:98 and 109:2). It is not enough to know the right principles, one also needs to apply them correctly.

Case closed.

There is, however, a further issue that needs to be mentioned. There is another choice of two alternatives that the careful reader of this article has to make.

1. The authors of this article, Ghoniem and Saifullah, have uncritically taken over the reasoning of various Muslim "scholars of tafsir" like al-Qurtubi, as-Sabuni / Ibn Kathir. This neither excuses their carelessness and nor does it recommend the scholarship of those commentators to the critical reader.

Or, worse,

2. Ghoniem and Saifullah were well aware that the reasoning of those scholars was false, but they have themselves not found any better response and hoped we would not find the mistake. In this case, they would be guilty of deliberate deception of the public readership, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

To raise such an accusation even as an option needs evidence. Maybe I am making too much of this, but I am wondering about the following observation: Ghoniem and Saifullah present in their discussion of the scholars only absolute quotations, sometimes even explicitly denying any exceptions, e.g. "The scholars say that Jesus, `Uzayr and the angels are not meant by verse 21:98 because "mā" [i.e., "what"] refers to inanimate things and not to people" (al-Qurtubi), and "while they know that their argument is not applicable to this verse since it refers to things only" (as-Sābūnī), etc. Even though this point is repeated over and over again in the grammar section, in the introduction to their article Ghoniem and Saifullah, defeating their own argument, make this strange admission:

"The word "mā" translated as "what" ... in verse 21:98 is used to refer to things/objects and seldom would it refer to people. ... More details are available in the section Grammatical considerations & tafsīr." [bold emphasis mine]

Why - if they already know that "ma" can refer to people as well - do we find in their discussion of grammar and tafsir no mentioning at all of those cases? Why are they not presenting the readership with an honest and thorough scholarly evaluation of all the facts?

If they were not aware of those counterexamples presented by us in our response above (or further ones), and if they were truly convinced by and in agreement with "the scholars of tafsir", why would they weaken their argument with this added phrase?

To me, this looks as if the authors know more than they are willing to admit, and that they deliberately hide facts that are essential in this argument. Therefore, they are consciously misleading the readership.

Was the admission itself a Freudian slip, accidentally revealing the truth against their own will, or was it deliberate in an attempt to protect themselves against the charge of being liars, thinking that this way, strictly speaking, their own statement is true, and their discussion of the scholars is true as well, so that on such a literal level no one can accuse them of lying? But obviously, deeds and articles are not judged on such fine twists of wording, but by intention, i.e. what they wanted the general reader to conclude from their article. And this intended conclusion is obvious to all who can read.

How torn the authors are in their own presentation becomes clear from another one of their statements in the discussion part, contradicting their introductory statement when writing:

Firstly, the grammatical considerations that we made in the beginning of this article according to which only inanimate things are included in verse 21:98.

Did they at first intend to mention the exceptions and then realized their case will crumble, and therefore went ahead with only absolute statements in the discussion part (forgetting they had already an admission to the contrary in the introduction), or have they written the introduction last, and suddenly they were struck by a bad conscience and for whatever reason felt they had to include their disclaimer that "seldom would it refer to people" against the argument of the quoted scholars and claims of the article itself?

The reader will have to come to his own conclusion whether the case presented by Ghoniem and Saifullah in their article was eloquent but ignorant, or, whether this was an attempt of deception, backfiring on their credibility and on their cause of defending Islam.

Truth has no reason to fear anything. If someone feels the need to twist the truth to defend his faith, why would he want to defend it in the first place?

Jochen Katz

Another detailed response to Ghoniem and Saifullah dealing also with various other claims and arguments made in their article is given by Sam Shamoun.

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