"Above all schemers" or "the best of schemers"?

Surah Âl 'Imran (3:54)

Some English translations of the Qur'an are simply amazing. At times, they are so far removed from the actual meaning of the Qur'an that they actually say the very opposite of the Arabic original. In this short article I want to point out the mistranslation of one particularly troubling verse. The following transliteration and all translations cited here are taken from this Muslim website.

The passage in S. 3:52-55 is important for the discussions between Christians and Muslims because it makes claims about the life and death of Jesus, or rather that he did not die as the Bible reports. In other words, it is a passage that is part of the Qur'an's denial of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Qur'an claims that what ultimately happened was a scheme or deception devised by God. This has enormous moral and theological implications. Before touching on some of these implications, I want to point out how various Muslim translations deal with this particular passage. Let's first cite a transliteration and a literal translation of S. 3:54.

Wamakaroo wamakara Allahu waAllahu khayru almakireena

And they cheated/deceived and God cheated/deceived, and God (is) the best (of) the cheaters/deceivers.

Note that the above translation is given by a Muslim!

There is no doubt that makr means deception, scheming, but looking at most Muslim translations, we see that this meaning is totally lost:

Pickthall Yusuf Ali Shakir Maulana M. Ali Malik
And they (the disbelievers) schemed, and Allah schemed (against them): and Allah is the best of schemers. And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah. And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners. And (the Jews) planned and Allah (also) planned. And Allah is the best of planners. The unbelievers among the children of Israel plotted against Jesus and Allah also devised a plan to raise him up, and Allah is the best in planning.
Al-Hilali & Khan Sarwar Free Minds QXP Muhammad Asad
And they (disbelievers) plotted [to kill Iesa (Jesus)], and Allah planned too. And Allah is the Best of the planners. The unbelievers plotted and God planned, but God is a much better planner; And they schemed and God schemed, but God is the best schemer. The opponents made some plans, but so did Allah. And Allah is the Virtuous of planners. (They schemed to arrest and crucify Jesus but Allah assured him). And the unbelievers schemed [against Jesus]; but God brought their scheming to nought: for God is above all schemers.

First observation: Many Muslim translators render the verb based on the root m-k-r (makaroo, makara) differently when it is used for the unbelievers than when it is used for Allah, despite the fact that it is the same word in both cases, i.e. they use "plotted" vs. "planned" (Al-Hilali & Khan), or "plotted and planned" vs. "planned" (Yusuf Ali), etc. — see the words highlighted in bold. Further observations will be presented below.

The meaning and implications of S. 3:54, and other similar verses, is discussed in more detail in these articles:

which the reader may want to study in order to recognize just how misleading and deceptive most Muslim translations of this verse are. One could come to the conclusion that we are looking here at Muslim scholars and translators trying to cover up the deceptiveness of Allah, i.e. they are seeking to deceive Muslims and non-Muslims alike about a rather problematic attribute of Allah.

The translations by Pickthall and by "Free Minds" are the only ones that are reasonably accurate; all others are trying to give a good impression of a rather bad word.

Since deception and scheming is a vice and not a virtue, it is quite shocking to see QXP render the expression "the best of schemers/deceivers" (khayru almakireen) as "the Virtuous of planners", even if he may have had in mind "virtuosity" in the sense of supreme ability and not virtue in the sense of high morality.

It is Muhammad Asad, however, who delivers the worst translation of this verse. The Arabic is very clear. The unbelievers schemed (by use of deception) and Allah schemed (using deception). The construction is absolutely parallel. Asad tries to separate Allah from the word "scheming", he tries to make it look as if Allah's action is not parallel but contrary to the action of the unbelievers. The verb is not rendered in Allah's case. Allah is supposedly "ending the scheming" instead of scheming himself. This is a clear corruption of the plain meaning of the text. In fact, for the last phrase ("the best of schemers"), Asad uses "for God is above all schemers", but what does that expression convey in English?

What does the dictionary say that "to be above" means?

13.   not subject or liable to; not capable of (some undesirable action, thought, etc.): above suspicion; to be above bad behavior.
14.   of too fine a character for: He is above such trickery. (Source: dictionary.com; emphasis mine)

With this information about the meaning of the English expression "to be above" (i.e. to be of higher morals than to use ...), we recognize that Asad's rendering is turning the meaning of the verse on its head. He tries to make Allah look like the God of the Bible who is wholly pure, but fact is that this verse says that Allah is not "above scheming", not "above all schemes" or "above all schemers", but that he is "the best of schemers". That is exactly the opposite meaning.[1]

And that is what the Qur'an claims happened in regard to the crucifixion of Jesus. Whatever it was that the Jews did in scheming to get rid of Jesus, Allah performed an even greater scheme and deception, because the Qur'an states:

and for their saying, 'We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God' -- yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them. Those who are at variance concerning him surely are in doubt regarding him; they have no knowledge of him, except the following of surmise; and they slew him not of a certainty -- no indeed; S. 4:157 Arberry

And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger - they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. S. 4:157 Pickthall

That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of God"; - but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:- S. 4:157 Yusuf Ali

Who made people believe that Jesus died on the Cross although he was not crucified? Who managed to make it appear so? Allah! Allah performed a greater deception than even the enemies of Jesus who wanted him dead. And because of the deception of Allah, the majority of people believe until this day that Jesus died on the cross — according to the author of the Qur'an.

Ironically, the Qur'an also states that when truth comes then falsehood vanishes:

Nay, but We hurl the truth against falsehood and it prevails over it, and behold, falsehood vanishes away. ... S. 21:18 Arberry

Nay! We cast the truth against the falsehood, so that it breaks its head, and lo! it vanishes; ... Shakir

That is a nice statement, in principle. However, that is not how Allah works. He did not set the power of truth against the evil schemes of his enemies. Apparently, in one of the most crucial moments of history, he tries to counter falsehood with greater falsehood; scheming with more powerful scheming, deception with an even greater deception. How will that ever bring truth?

Sadly, Islam is not ending deception, but is instead perfecting it because it comes from the most skilled deceiver, from the one who prides himself to be the best deceiver (S. 3:54 and 8:30).[2]

That is not a minor quirk. We are talking here about a rather fundamental flaw in the character of Allah.

Business as usual? Or what are the implications?

Can we shrug this off with an "Allah knows best"? Or could that be a valid reason to cause some sleepless nights for Muslims who are genuine seekers after truth?

Should these observations not lead to the following serious questions: How can such a God be trustworthy? How can we know (in any particular instance) that he is now speaking truth, that what he is currently saying is not just part of another one of his deceptive schemes, that this is not another trickery in which he seeks to lead us astray (again)?

The Qur'an says that what happened at the crucifixion was Allah's deceptive scheme in order to make people believe that Jesus was crucified although he really wasn't. But the consequence was that Allah led astray billions of people by that deception.

Now, I do not believe this for a minute. I am convinced that the Bible is true, that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, that God is truthful and trustworthy, and, in consequence that the Qur'an is wrong and did not come from God.

However, a Muslim has to contend with the implications of what the Qur'an says. And if that is indeed the character of Allah, if deceptiveness belongs to the character of the God of the Qur'an, how can a Muslim have any confidence that Muhammad and the Qur'an was not another "great deception" by Allah (the greatest of the deceivers) for the purpose of leading astray billions of people — the Muslims? Specificially, leading astray multitudes by causing them to NOT believe in the crucifixion (although it was true) and so that they may NOT believe in Jesus as the true Son of God and that they may NOT accept the salvation that the true God of the Bible offers to them?

On what basis can a Muslim have any confidence that what Allah tells him in the Qur'an is true — if the Qur'an comes from Allah at all?[2]

If God is truthful and trustworthy, then the Qur'an is not from God. On the other hand, if the Qur'an is correct in S. 3:54, 4:157 and 8:30 then God is a deceiver. But if God is a deceiver, we cannot trust that he speaks the truth in the Qur'an. Therefore, the Qur'an destroys its own credibility and there remains only desperation for a Muslim.[3]

Jochen Katz

Further reading

Deceiving us about Deception? is an article that discusses a related verse and presents additional thoughts that are complementing what has been pondered in this paper.

Our dictionary entry on DECEPTION lists a number of articles on the deceptiveness and/or trustworthiness of God.


1. Observations that are very similar to those presented here in regard to S. 3:54 can also be made in regard to Surah 8:30; just compare translations here.

2. The Qur'an states twice that Allah is the best of the deceivers:

And they (the disbelievers) schemed, and Allah schemed (against them): and Allah is the best of schemers (waAllahu khayru almakireena). S. 3:54 Pickthall

And when those who disbelieve plot against thee (O Muhammad) to wound thee fatally, or to kill thee or to drive thee forth; they plot, but Allah (also) plotteth; and Allah is the best of plotters (waAllahu khayru almakireena). S. 8:30 Pickthall

On the other hand, Jesus identifies Satan as the father of lies, i.e. as the master deceiver:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44 NIV

It is up to the reader whether or not he dares to see a connection between these passages, but I do not consider such a connection to be far-fetched.

3. How different is Jesus, how different is the God of the Bible!

... Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:31-32 NIV

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. ...
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:1,6 NIV

No, there is no need to end with despair. Jesus offers hope and shows the way out of the Muslim dilemma, if only a Muslim would consider what Jesus says to him.

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