When No Means Yes?

“No means no!” Everyone understands this basic truth, except rapists. Well, except rapists and early Muslim commentators on the Qur’an. Let me explain.

In the Qur’an, Allah is fond of taking oaths in the name of all sorts of things. He swears by the Qur’an, by the heavens, by the mountains, the moon, the stars, the wind, the angels, the dawn, the city, the sun, the night, even by the fig and olive.oath

According to the Bible, however, when God swears an oath, He always does it upon His own name, because (as Hebrews 6:13 declares) “He could swear by nothing greater” than Himself. Allah of the Qur’an, however, feels no such reservation, and so the Qur’an is filled with all sorts of oaths.

However, a few days ago I discovered a number of Suras containing divine oaths which make no sense at all, because they are negations. In English they are sometimes translated, as “Nay! I swear by…”, but the Arabic text has no punctuation separating the particle “No” from the verb that follows, so that it reads more naturally as “I do no swear by…”, which would be an odd declaration for Allah to make. In many of these instances it could be argued that Allah is negating a proposition just stated, and thus starts off his next words with, “No….(Instead,) I swear by…that such and so is the case…” However, in at least two Suras this is impossible, since these negative oaths occur as the first words of the chapter in question. Thus, Sura 75 begins literally:

“I do not swear by the Day of Resurrection; And I do not swear by the self-reproaching person…” (vv. 1-2)

And Sura 90:1 says,

“I do not swear by this city….”

Some modern translators still try to attach Nay or No as an emphatic stand-alone statement before the oath, but this makes no sense since there is nothing prior against which this exclamation can apply. Therefore, in order to make sense of these texts (because since the Qur’an is perfect, one cannot surmise that these were simply unintentional errors and the negative particle should be erased), early authoritative commentators on the Qur’an argued that in Arabic sometimes the negative term “Laa” actually serves as an emphatic “yes”, so that though it literally reads “I do not swear by…”, it should really mean “I do verily swear by….” (Check out the commentaries of Jalalayn, Baidawi, and Zamakhshari, all highly revered Qur’anic scholars, if you are interested).twisted scripture So, apparently, there are times in the Qur’an where “no” can be taken to mean “yes.” This could have exciting ramifications for the reinterpretation of Islamic doctrine! Let me illustrate.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog highlighting a vital difference in the nature of love as offered by the God of the Bible versus the god of the Qur’an. (You can read that here.) In that article, I noted eight of twenty-two instances in the Qur’an where Allah indicates the kinds of people that he does not love:

Allah loves not those who transgress the limits of his will;

Allah loves not those who make corruption in the land;

Allah loves not those who reject Islam;

Allah loves not those who do wrong / the unjust;

Allah loves not the arrogant or proud;

Allah loves not those who rejoice in their wealth;

Allah loves not the treacherous, criminals, and those with evil tongues;

Allah loves not the prodigals (those who waste his resources).

However, now that we know that “No” can mean “Yes” to Qur’anic interpreters, perhaps we can offer a new, revolutionary Allah for the world. Applying our newfound knowledge, we can affirm that Allah indeed loves the prodigals (as Jesus teaches!). Allah loves the unjust (“God demonstrates His love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” — Romans 5:8). Allah loves those who reject Islam (“There is salvation in no one else [than Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” — Acts 4:12).

Stop the presses! With this new interpretive principle, we can show that Islam actually supports Christianity! oh behave

Sadly, however, this is not an acceptable approach to Muslim scholars. They are only driven to the lunacy that “No can mean yes” by the theological need to support the unsupportable: that the Qur’an is without errors.

So, we are back to where we started — almost. In the real world, “No” means “No.” Except to rapists. And to interpreters of the Qur’an, when necessity demands it.


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One Response to When No Means Yes?

  1. Benj says:

    It would be interesting to see how various Qur’anic scholars parse these votive formulas. I have no knowledge of Arabic, but I know that Hebrew and Aramaic have some interesting constructions that are interpreted as oaths. This also reminds me of Job 1-2 in which the word translated “curse” is actually the Hebrew word for “bless” (1:5; 1:11; 2:5; 2:9)–the idea being that the scribes could not bear to write the words “curse God,” even when quoting the satan or stating a possibility.


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