Surah Al-A'raf (7:99)
In this short article we want to look at a number of Muslim translations of Surah 7:99. First a transliteration of the Arabic:
Afaaminoo makra Allahi fala ya/manu makra Allahi illa alqawmu alkhasiroona
[This transliteration and most of the following translations are taken from this Muslim website.]
A (not very elegant) literal translation gives this rendering:
Did they secure God's scheme/deceit? So no(one) trusts God's scheme/deceit except the nation the losers.
There is no doubt that makr means deception, scheming, but in most Muslim translations this meaning is totally lost:
|Pickthall||Yusuf Ali||Shakir||Maulana M. Ali||Sher Ali|
|Are they then secure from Allah's scheme? None deemeth himself secure from Allah's scheme save folk that perish.||Did they then feel secure against the plan of Allah? - but no one can feel secure from the Plan of Allah, except those (doomed) to ruin!||What! do they then feel secure from Allah's plan? But none feels secure from Allah's plan except the people who shall perish.||Are they secure from Allah’s plan? But none feels secure from Allah’s plan except the people who perish.||Are they then secure from the design of ALLAH? And none feels secure from the design of ALLAH save the people who are destined to perish.|
|Al-Hilali & Khan||Muhammad Asad||Free Minds||QXP||Sarwar|
|Did they then feel secure against the Plan of Allah. None feels secure from the Plan of Allah except the people who are the losers.||Can they, then, ever feel secure from God's deep devising? But none feels secure from God's deep devising save people who are [already] lost.||Have they become sure about God's scheming? None are sure about God's scheming except the people who are losers.||Do they feel secure from the subtle progression of the Divine Laws? Do they think that the Divine Law grants them unconditional security? Only the losers feel secure from the subtle progression of Allah's Law of Requital.||Did they consider themselves secure from the retribution of God? No one can have such attitude except those who are lost.|
It is quite obvious that most Muslim translators have a problem to honestly translate makr as deception. So, they chose formulations like "the plan of Allah", "the design of ALLAH", "God's deep devising", "the retribution of God", and even "the subtle progression of the Divine Laws", which is so far away from the true meaning of "makr" that it is a mystery how the translator got that idea. Only Pickthall and Free Minds are reasonably close to the actual meaning of the Arabic.
The meaning of this word, this verse and other similar verses is discussed in detail in these two articles
Fearing the ‘deep devising’ of Allah, or: Trembling for Paradise
Having observed the ubiquitous mistranslations in this verse, let us now look at the actual content and meaning. What does this "ayah" say? What are some of the implications?
This verse has enormous ramifications. The question arising from this verse (and other similar ones) is this: Is Allah trustworthy? Is he faithful to his promises? Can believers trust Allah? Or, to personalize the matter. Any Muslim taking the Qur'an seriously should ask: Can I trust Allah?
It is a huge theological problem that the Qur'an ascribes deception to Allah. This topic is discussed in-depth in the various articles linked on this page (above and below). But there is another existential and psychological problem caused by the second statement in this verse.
There are plenty of people who reject God and his message. They do what they want because they do not even believe that God exists or that he will hold judgment over the deeds done in their lives. They feel secure in their evil ways. This is the immediate context for this verse (and those around it). This verse speaks out against such a false security, the false confidence of unbelievers and transgressors, and that is certainly correct. Everyone will have to appear before God and give account for his life and God will judge. However, the formulation chosen in this verse is absolute and affects not only the unbelievers but also the believers:
... None feels secure from the scheme/deceit/deception of Allah except the people who are the losers.
In the Qur'an, "the losers" are those who will eventually end up in Hell, i.e. they will be the losers in God's final judgment. This expression being clarified, the meaning of this statement becomes clear: It is the unbelievers who feel to be secure from the judgments of God. But they do so wrongly and to their own peril because God will judge them despite their feelings. However, this verse says much more; it states that if somebody feels secure from the scheme of God then this feeling of security is already an indication that he is one of those who are lost.
That this is so, can be seen more clearly when we transform the negative formulation "none ... except ..." into direct positive statements:
If someone feels secure from the scheme of Allah then he is one of the people who are the losers.
Whoever feels secure from the scheme of Allah, he is one of the losers.
Only those who are (ultimately) lost feel secure (today) from the scheme of Allah.
All these formulations are equivalent to the second statement of S. 7:99.
In other words, there are two sides to this verse. The certainly correct meaning is that unbelievers are addressed and warned against a false feeling of security. If you feel secure from Allah's judgment, then you will be the losers. But since the verse was formulated in such absolute terms (none ... except ...), it also has the consequence that believers need to live in fear of Allah. Believers need to fear the makr (scheming/deception) of Allah, because if they would not fear it, i.e. if they think they are secure from it, then they (already) belong to the losers.
Unbelievers think they are secure but their feeling of security is misguided and they will have a horrible awakening from their false security. But the flip-side of the statement is: Believers cannot feel or be secure either. They necessarily need to live in fear of Allah.
This is illustrated by Muslim traditions about Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad's closest friends, and his successor as leader of the Muslim community. Muhammad had informed him that he is guaranteed Paradise. Despite this promise, the following is reported about Abu Bakr:
Whenever he was reminded of his position in Allah’s sight, he would say: “By Allah! I would not rest assured and feel safe from the makr of Allah, even if I had one foot in paradise.” (Khalid Muhammad Khalid, Successors of the Messenger, translated by Muhammad Mahdi al-Sharif [Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah, Beirut Lebanon, 2005], p. 99; cf. this discussion; the relevant portion of the Arabic original is displayed here)
When we understand what S. 7:99 says, this seemingly strange reaction is actually natural and very understandable. Still, it reveals so much anxiety, and it is heart-breaking.
How different is the Gospel! How different is the character and message of the true God who speaks to us through the Bible:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God. (John 1:10-13)
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." (Romans 8:15)
Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." (Galatians 4:6)
Instead of the fear and insecurity instilled by Islam, subjecting Muslims to a spirit that makes them slaves to fear (cf. Romans 8:15), the Gospel offers solid confidence: We can KNOW that we ARE children of God, and this security of the love of God brings freedom (Romans 8:21), joy and peace (Romans 14:17).
If you, the reader, long to know God, just ask him to reveal to you who he is. God invites us to ask questions. The problem is not that God is not speaking. The issue is whether we are willing to hear answers that may turn our lives upside down. God is willing to be questioned. Are we willing to question our previous beliefs and think anew so that we may become confident of the truth?
Related thoughts can be found in the article Allah: "Above all schemers" or "the best of schemers"?
Our dictionary entry on DECEPTION lists a number of articles on the deceptiveness and/or trustworthiness of God.
Two of the first Muslims relates deathbed statements of Abu Bakr and Umar, and of their relatives.
1. There are two options. Either, this is intended, i.e. Allah/Muhammad formulated that verse deliberately in this way because he wanted that Muslims live in this kind of fear. And Abu Bakr correctly understood it, and reacted appropriately.
Without doubt, there will be some Muslims who will argue that this is not the intended meaning of this verse. It speaks only to the unbelievers. Believers, on the other hand, can feel confident and they can and should trust in the goodness of Allah.
Note that the negative implications for the believers (as described in this article) could easily have been avoided. For example, the author of the Qur'an could have said instead: "Unbelievers who feel secure from Allah's judgment will be the losers", or "only believers can feel secure from Allah's schemes" (implying that unbelievers cannot). There are many formulations that could have been chosen to convey the message to the unbelievers without the outlined dreadful implications for the believers. However, as it is, whether intentional or not, this verse can only instill fear into Muslims that Allah might deceive them in the end, and that all their pious efforts and sincere devotion will have been in vain.
A Muslim can never know whether or not Allah will, in the end, admit him into Paradise. A Muslim who takes the Qur'an seriously, cannot have any assurance of salvation.
As it is written, a feeling of security is a sign of one's lostness. Muslims who want to deny this, will have to contend with the implication that the author of the Qur'an was not able to express himself clearly, and the Qur'an is not miracle of eloquence that it claims for itself. Moreover, they have to conclude that Abu Bakr did not understand the message of the Qur'an when he reacted as he did as reported in the Islamic traditions.
In fact, although being an important and troubling aspect, this insecurity and fear in regard to one's final destination does not really depend on the negative meaning of the word makr. Even if this verse would not speak about Allah's deceptive scheming, and the Arabic had instead used a neutral word that genuinely means "plan", the conclusion would not be very different since the "plan of Allah" for the individual believer remains hidden.
Islam teaches a rather rigid predestination (cf. the Index entry on PREDESTINATION). No Muslim can really know what Allah predetermined for him, whether Allah decided that he will ultimately go to Hell or to Paradise. This verse, S. 7:99, is actually consistent with the Islamic teaching that the eternal future of any person is already decided beforehand (but that we do not know which it is). Therefore, nobody can feel secure, no matter how deeply devoted one may be. In the end, Allah may have had a different plan for him.
The issue here is not even so much whether the plan of Allah is actively deceptive or simply unkown; the issue is that this verse teaches that nobody can feel secure, that even believers will have to live in fear of what Allah's plan will be for them.
2. There are plenty of Muslim publications online that discuss "the ten who were given glad tidings of Paradise". Since the promise of Paradise for Abu Bakr is not a controversial issue, I will present just a few links (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
The promise of Paradise for Abu Bakr is not only a matter of some hadith, but in Sura 92 there are some verses that are traditionally taught to have been sent down by Allah in honor of Abu Bakr (Al Siddeeq) for spending away his wealth by buying slaves and then freeing them without expecting back any rewards. This can be found in Sura 92:17-20.
The context of Sura 92 speaks of a contrast between those who are not pure and righteous versus those who are. It also promises Hell to those who are wretched, and promises those who are pure to be saved from it. Yet, despite all of this, and despite the fact that Allah himself revealed these verses in honor of Abu Bakr, he still did not have any sense of security from Allah’s deception.
Here now come the verses mentioned above and what some of the classical commentaries say regarding them:
“And away from it shall be kept the one who guards most (against evil), who gives away his wealth, purifying himself” S. 92:17, 18 Shakir
The commentary of Al Qurtubi states on verse 17:
“who guards most” is the one who fears (Allah). Ibn Abbas said: he is Abu Bakr (may Allah’s blessings be upon him) – being kept (or pushed away or prevented) from entering Hell. (Arabic Source; translation by Mutee'a Al-Fadi)
In the commentary of Al-Jalalayn, we read regarding verse 18:
he who gives his wealth to purify himself, offering it as a [means of self] purification before God, exalted be He, by making this payment for the sake of God, exalted be He, and not for show or the sake of reputation, so that he [or the offering] stands purified in the sight of God. This [verse] was revealed regarding the truthful one (al-siddīq) [Abū Bakr], may God be pleased with him, when he purchased Bilāl [the Ethiopian], who was being tortured on account of his faith, and then freed him, whereat the disbelievers said, ‘He only did this in return for a favour which he [must have] owed him’, and so the following was revealed: and no one has any favour [outstanding] with him that must be requited; but, he did this, only seeking the pleasure of his Lord the Most High, that is to say, only seeking [to secure] God’s reward; (Tafsir Al-Jalalayn on S. 92:18-20, source; italics mine for better distinction between text and commentary)
3. A more literal translation of Abu Bakr's statement would be:
“By Allah, I would not feel safe from Allah’s deception even if one of my feet was in paradise.”
What does this statement mean?
Obviously, the promise of Paradise that was given to him has not instilled much assurance in Abu Bakr's heart. Clearly, his fear still is that he will not get into paradise after all, even though Allah promised it. And the reason that is given is not that he fears for his own heart (i.e. that he may become unfaithful and disobedient to Allah — as some Muslims have tried to explain this) but he states explicitly that he fears the makr of Allah.
Abu Bakr will only believe that he gets to Paradise after he is actually there — fully, from head to toe. His formulation suggests that having one foot in Paradise is not enough; even at that stage he could still be pulled back from it.
Because of what Abu Bakr read in the Qur'an, he apparently reached the conclusion: "Allah cannot be trusted". The deception of Allah could reach him even at his last hour, just when he is about to enter Paradise — and close the door on him.
If that holds for Abu Bakr, one of the best Muslims, the first one to be promised Paradise personally and directly, how can any other Muslim have more confidence of Paradise than Abu Bakr?
But if that is the nature of Allah, how does he know (and how can any Muslim know) that Allah's makr isn't even more cruel? How can he be sure that Allah will not let people taste Paradise and THEN send them to Hell in order to make the punishment of Hell even worse by having experienced what Paradise is and what it could have been for him? After all, Allah prides himself to be "the best of deceivers" (*).
Can Allah’s makr extend to the point of pulling people out of Paradise to send them to Hell as their final destination?
After all, Islam clearly teaches that all Muslims will have to go through Hell before they can enter Paradise (S. 19:70-72; cf. this discussion). Why not the other way around for some? If not, why not? Wouldn't that be a "great deception" worthy of the "greatest of all deceivers"? In any case, these observations indicate that even "both feet in Paradise" may not be enough to be secure.
I close with a narration about a companion of Muhammad who knows that he will enter hell but is afraid that he may not come out since Allah hasn't committed himself to guaranteeing the exit of Muslims from there:
According to Ibn Humayd – Salamah – Muhammad b. Ishaq – Muhammad b. Ja‘far b. al-Zubayr – ‘Urwah b. al-Zubayr, who said: The Messenger of God sent his expedition to Mu’tah in Jumada I of the year 8. He put Zayd b. Harithah in command of the men and said, “If Zayd b. Harithah is killed, Ja‘far b. Abi Talib shall be in command of the men; if Ja‘far is killed, ‘Abdallah b. Rawahah shall be in command ... When ‘Abdallah b. Rawahah said goodbye with the other commanders of the Messenger of God who were doing so, HE WEPT. They said to him, “What is making you weep, Ibn Rawahah?” He said, “By God, I have no love of this world or excessive love for you, but I heard the Messenger of God recite a verse from the Book of God that mentioned the Fire [of Hell] – ‘Not one of you there is, but he shall go down to it; that for thy Lord is a thing decreed, determined’ – AND I DO NOT KNOW HOW I CAN COME OUT AFTER GOING DOWN.” The Muslims said, “May God accompany you, defend you, and bring you back to us in good health.” ... (The History of Al-Tabari: The Victory of Islam, translated by Michael Fishbein [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1997], Volume VIII (8), pp. 152-153; bold and capital emphasis ours)
Note that the Muslims only give him good wishes, but he does not get an answer to his fearful question. He still doesn't know whether or not he will exit hell again.
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