Which sects are differing about what?

Surah Maryam (19:37)

At the end of Jesus’ alleged speech from the cradle (S. 19:29-36), we find the following statement:

Pickthall Yusuf Ali Muhammad Asad Shabbir Ahmed Muhammad Sarwar
The sects among them differ: but woe unto the disbelievers from the meeting of an awful Day. But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the unbelievers because of the (coming) Judgment of a Momentous Day! And yet, the sects [that follow the Bible] are at variance among themselves [about the nature of Jesus]! Woe, then, unto all who deny the truth when that awesome Day will appear! And yet, the sects (that follow the Bible) differ among themselves. Woe then, unto all who deny the Truth when that awesome Day will appear. (The followers of Jesus) turned themselves into quarrelling sects. The disbelievers shall face a woeful condition on the great Day (of Judgment).
Al-Hilali & Khan Ali Quli Qara'i Arberry Syed Vickar Ahamed Ahmed Ali
Then the sects differed [i.e. the Christians about 'Iesa (Jesus)], so woe unto the disbelievers [those who gave false witness by saying that 'Iesa (Jesus) is the son of Allah] from the meeting of a great Day (i.e. the Day of Resurrection, when they will be thrown in the blazing Fire). But the factions differed among themselves. So woe to the faithless at the scene of a tremendous day. But the parties have fallen into variance among themselves; then woe to those who disbelieve for the scene of a dreadful day. Then, the groups differed among themselves: so (this is a) warning to the disbelievers because of the Judgment on a great Day! So the groups/parties differed/disagreed/disputed from between them, so grief/distress to those who disbelieved from an assembly of a great day.
Maulana M. Ali Faridul Haque Abdel Haleem    
But parties from among them differed; so woe to those who disbelieve, because of their presence on a grievous day! Then groups among them differed; so ruin is for the disbelievers from the witnessing of a Great Day. But factions have differed among themselves. What suffering will come to those who obscure the truth when a dreadful Day arrives!   [The translations used in this table were mostly taken from this page.]

Although this verse may initially appear to be straight-forward, the first part of this verse makes a mysterious statement that raises a lot of questions.

Which sects is this verse talking about? What did they differ about? How is their difference related to infant Jesusí miraculous speech from the cradle?

Does it refer to sects existing at the time of Jesus’ infancy and certain disagreements they supposedly had directly after this speech? Or is it a statement about sects "in general" and refers to all sects in all religions at any time?

Within Judaism and Christendom and Islam there existed in the past and still exist today many different "sects", but despite their minor or sometimes even major differences they are usually not calling each other unbelievers. Assuming that one group is believing correctly, does this mean any difference with this group is turning somebody into an unbeliever?

So, we have to ask: What about the disbelievers mentioned in the second part of the verse? Are the sects mentioned in the first clause identical to the disbelievers mentioned in the second part of the verse? If yes, all of the sects or most of them or only some of them? But if not, what is the connection between the first and the second clause?

The only thing that is clear about this verse is the fact that it is thoroughly unclear as to what it is talking about.

And because this statement is so unclear, we see considerable differences in the translations. Does it talk about clearly defined religious sects that existed over a certain period of time? Or does it talk about a spontaneous disagreement that arose between certain people about something Jesus said in his speech from the cradle, i.e. a dispute between people who disagreed about something without them therefore belonging to different "religious sects"?

After all, many translators prefer a more neutral rendering as "groups" or "parties" of "factions" over the religious term "sects".

Some translators even felt the need to change the tense of the verb from past tense (in Arabic) to present tense (in English) in order to confer a certain desired meaning on this verse, i.e. to make it refer to different Christian sects, some even adding this interpretation explicitly into their translation. However, it should be obvious that at the time of Jesus’ birth there could not yet have existed differing sects of Christianity. If this is indeed the intended meaning, then it is an utterly anachronistic statement in the Qur'an, a claim that is historically impossible.

Masud Masihiyyen examines this verse and the questions raised by it in his thorough article Unravelling a Knot of the Qur'an: De-confusing Surah 19:37.

Even though the last three translations in the above table would make the most sense (in the context of this verse), i.e. the indefinite expression "groups" or "parties" or "factions" would best fit the situation, that is not what the Arabic says. Al-Ahzab[1] is definite and must therefore be translated as "THE groups", "THE parties" or "THE sects", and it refers to established, known groups, whether they be political or religious groups or sects. This verse does not say: In reaction to this speech some groups came into being, but it says THE groups, i.e. previously known groups, differed among themselves. In other words, the use of the definite article implies that some groups which existed already prior to Jesus’ speech from the cradle (then) disagreed among themselves (also about the interpretation or implications of Jesus’ speech).

Thus, the mysterious question remains: Which groups or sects is the Qur'an talking about?

Maybe because he was aware of some of the problems caused by this verse, Dr. Munir Munshey does his best to completely divorce it from its context (Jesus’s speech from the cradle) when he renders 19:37 in this way:

Groups have disputed amongst themselves regarding the day (of judgment). Witnessing that great day shall be disastrous for those who deny its coming. (Source)

Not only does Munshey make al-ahzab indefinite, he also tries to break this verse away from what comes before, as if it is a general statement about some unknown unspecified groups who are in disagreement about the day of judgment. However, the Arabic starts with the particle "fa" which sets this verse in relationship with what came before and is variously rendered by other translators as "but", "yet", "so", or "then", and could also be rendered "as a result". The Arabic text understands (the first part of) S. 19:37 clearly as being a reaction to what came before, i.e. Jesus’s speech from the cradle (19:30-36).

Jochen Katz

Footnote

Al-Ahzab is also the name of Surah 33 and usually rendered there as "The Allies" or "The Confederates". The word is derived from the root "hzb", a generic word for a "group" or "party" (cf. "Hezbollah" = "the party of Allah"). For the plural, al-ahzab, the context determines whether the word refers to groups that support each other, i.e. allies, or to groups competing or disagreeing with each other, e.g. political parties or religious sects.


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