Ash-Shahrastani mentions the issue of translating the attributes of Allah in Persian

Title page of al-Milal wa n-Nihal by ash-ShahrastaniPages 104 and 105 of Milal

There are religious rules for the translation of religious terms from Arabic into any language. The words chosen in any language need to express the same meaning as the Arabic word, in its context. We can only translate word to word when the equivalent foreign expression actually has the same meaning as the Arabic one.

Imam ash-Shahrastani, in his book al-Milal wa n-Nihal (about the various sects claiming to be Islamic groups), said about Muslim scholars, on page 105:

“Some were so careful that they did not translate the terms ‘yad’, ‘wajh’ and ‘istiwa’’ [1] in Farsi [Persian] as well as for any similar narration.  If they needed a phrase to mention [them], they would quote them [i.e. the revealed expressions] to the letter. Indeed, this is the safe way and it is not assimilating [2] Allâh with His creation in anyway”.

[1] The basic meaning of ‘yad’ is ‘hand’ but it also means ‘power’, etc. It is used in many figurative expressions.

The basic meaning of ‘wajh’ is face but it too has many other meanings such as ‘kind’, ‘aspect’, ‘reality’, etc.

The verb ‘istawà’ has many meanings too, among which: to be equal, to become of age, to be cooked, to sit, to show one’s power, to conquer, etc.

[2] I.e. it is not kufr by tashbih /assimilating Allah to His creations.

Points to remember:

  • Imam ash-Shahrastani died in 548 after the Hijrah i.e. more than 800 years ago.
  •  His book describes the beliefs of various misguided groups.
  • Here he mentions some Sunni scholars who would avoid translating the non-explicit phrases from the Qur’an in Persian. We can take lessons from that regarding the translating of  these expressions in English. So, instead of listing ‘eye”, ‘face’, ‘hand’ in English, one needs to quote the Arabic and then give an explanation, as this was the approach of the scholars of the Salaf.

One Response to “Ash-Shahrastani mentions the issue of translating the attributes of Allah in Persian”

  1. Assalamu alaykum. My teachers taught me that translating Yad and other attributes that literally mean bodily parts is not permissible, except Wajh. I was taught that it is also mentioned in Imam Abu Hanifa’s RA Al Fiqh Al Akbar, that Yad cannot be translated into Persian, meaning into any other language.

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