The Sins of Muhammad

Surah Muhammad (47:19)

Contrary to all evidence, it is one of the cherrished dogmas of Islam that the Prophets of God could not and have not committed any sins. In some cases, this conviction leads Muslims to mistranslate certain verses of the Qur'an that clearly speak of Muhammad's sins. One such verse is Surah 47:19. Ignoring for now the differences in the last sentence of this verse, let me first present four Muslim translations that are honest and correct in this regard:

Pickthall Al-Hilali & Khan M. Sarwar R. Khalifa
So know (O Muhammad) that there is no God save Allah, and ask forgiveness for thy sin and for believing men and believing women. Allah knoweth (both) your place of turmoil and your place of rest. So know (O Muhammad) that La ilaha ill-Allah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah), and ask forgiveness for your sin, and also for (the sin of) believing men and believing women. And Allah knows well your moving about, and your place of rest (in your homes). Know that God is the only Lord. Ask forgiveness for your sins and for the sins of the believing men and women. God knows when you move and when you rest. You shall know that: "There is no other god beside GOD," and ask forgiveness of your sins and the sins of all believing men and women. GOD is fully aware of your decisions and your ultimate destiny.
[ Information about the translations used in this article ]

Based on the original Arabic text, there is no question that Muhammad is commanded in this verse to ask for forgiveness of his sins. The meaning of this verse and several other verses as they speak about the sins of Muhammad and of prophets in general are discussed in some detail in the articles, Islam and the Sins of the Prophets and Was Muhammad a Sinner? But since this "cannot be" according to common Muslim belief, the following translations attempt to minimize the plain meaning and implications of this verse.

T.B. Irving Yusuf Ali Shakir Sher Ali Maulana M. Ali
Know that there is no deity except God [Alone], and beg forgiveness for your offence, as well as for believing men and believing women. God knows how you (all) bustle about on your business and where you settle down. Know, therefore, that there is no god but Allah, and ask forgiveness for thy fault, and for the men and women who believe: for God knows how ye move about and how ye dwell in your homes. So know that there is no god but Allah, and, ask protection for your fault and for the believing men and the believing women; and Allah knows the place of your returning and the place of your abiding. Know, therefore, that there is no god other than ALLAH, and ask protection for thy human frailties, and for believing men and believing women. And ALLAH knows the place where you move about and the place where you stay. So know, that there is no God but Allah and ask protection for thy sin, and for the believing men and the believing women.2300 And Allah knows your moving about and your staying (in a place).

We see that two changes were made in order to avoid the undesirable conclusion. First, the word sin is replaced by something less "problematic" like fault, offense, or even human frailty. Some translators even replace the term forgiveness by protection. However, the Arabic states istaghfir li dhanbika. The imperative istaghfir means "seek forgiveness", it doesn't mean "asking for protection". Moreover, dhanb is the word for sin or guilt. It is a strong word, it does not denote merely minor faults or mistakes. ka is the second person singular (your).

Although Maulana Muhammad Ali still uses the word "sin" in his translation, he has a footnote to this verse which makes very clear that he does not want this to be understood as asking for forgiveness of sins already committed. He states:

2300 Not only the Prophet but every believer is told here to keep praying to God for being protected from sin, for himself and for all the believers, men as well as women; ...

Changing the meaning of individual words observed in the above quotations is not the only trick employed by Muslim translators to avoid the obvious. There are at least two translators which had another idea to protect Muhammad from being associated with the idea of having committed sins.

Muhammad Asad renders this verse such:

Know, then, [O man,] that there is no deity save God, and [while there is yet time,] ask forgiveness for thy sins, and for the sins of all other believing men and women: for God knows all your comings and goings as well as your abiding [at rest].

Although Asad is honest in his translation of the phrase istaghfir li dhanbika he adds the parenthetical "O man" into the verse to give the impression that this command is supposedly addressed to every person, but not specifically to Muhammad. Most people have sins, so there is no problem, and it no longer states explicitly that Muhammad himself had sins and had to ask God to forgive them.

Nooruddin found this problem so bothersome that he used every trick in the book for his translation:

(Believer!) know, therefore, that there is no other, cannot be and will never be One worthy of worship other than Allah and seek His protection and forgiveness of your (human) shortcomings and (also) for believing men and believing women. Allah knows your haunt (where you move about), and your resting-place.

He replaces sins by the term (human) shortcomings, he adds the word protection to the expression forgiveness, and he makes this verse address the general believer instead of Muhammad.

There is one more version that we have seen recently:

Therefore know (O dear Prophet Mohammed - peace and blessings be upon him) that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, and seek the forgiveness of sins of your close ones and for the common believing men and women; and Allah knows your movements during the day and your resting during the night.

We do not know whether the above rendering is found in any published translation, but it was claimed by a Muslim to be the correct translation after he was confronted with the claim that the Qur'an speaks about the sins of Muhammad. He responded that "the correct Arabic translation for this verse shows that Mohammad was asking forgiveness for his ummah and not himself, because he is without sin". He sent the above ‘corrected translation’ and emphasized: "Not his own sins, but the sins of his close ones."

There is, however, absolutely no justification in the Arabic text for adding the phrase "of your close ones". Doing so is only a testimony to the fact that certain Muslims do not want to face up to the truth about Muhammad, even if it comes from the Qur'an.

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