Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Of Kings and Paupers

More fairy-tales from the 1001 knights of tafsir

Jochen Katz

Bassam Zawadi wrote a rebuttal (*) to one of my articles in which I pointed out a historical error in the Qur’an (*). The reader is advised to first read my original article before proceeding to the further discussion provided in this answer to Zawadi’ response.

Bassam Zawadi starts with a somewhat inadequate summary of my argument:

Jochen's main argument is that since the Qur'an in Surah 5:20 says that Allah made the Israelites kings at a time when that never happened, this proves that this is a historical error in the Qur'an.

The verse states:

Remember Moses said to his people: "O my people! Call in remembrance the favour of Allah unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples."

The Arabic word translated as kings is mulook. This word in the singular is malik in Arabic. The word malik in Arabic does not only necessarily refer to a king in power according to traditional Arabic. It is true that in vernacular Arabic, it almost always refers to a king. However, we must examine the word malik according to the correct traditional Arabic language.

After presenting a number of alleged alternative meanings (which will be examined in a moment), Zawadi claims:

In conclusion, the Arabic word malik does not have to literally be referring to a king and it could mean several other things as well. Jochen's job would be to show that the word must be literally be referring to a king in order to have a successful argument, however he has not done so. 

That, however, is a wrong conclusion and an utterly inappropriate demand.

On philosophical and logical grounds, the burden of proof is on Zawadi. He cannot demand from me to prove that a word could not possibly mean anything else. That is demanding proof for a universal negative. Zawadi has to tell us what it means, or at least what it could mean, and support his claim with viable evidence.

Moreover, statements in human languages are not mathematical formulas that can be proven true or rejected as false with absolute certainty. Nearly every word in natural human language has a certain range of meanings. And thus, every sentence can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, the context usually makes it quite clear what is the intended and natural understanding of a word or a sentence or a paragraph. By demanding absolute proof that the word “malik” could not possibly mean anything else than a literal king, Zawadi is making a silly demand. He has not understood how language works. Even if “malik” had alternative meanings, Zawadi’s conclusion would still not follow.

The most that can be argued – on either side – is a high degree of probability for a certain interpretation of the text. However, it is quite interesting to observe that Zawadi does not even attempt to argue that his interpretation (actually, which one of all those that he lists?) is the most probable one. He merely claims that this and that is another possible meaning of the word “malik” without arguing whether this alleged meaning is at all probable in the given context.

Even if “malik” had other meanings than the usual one (and Zawadi did not bring any proof for that), the word doesn’t have all these meanings every time it is used. The context defines which of the potential meanings is the actual meaning in this case.

In the following, I will look at all these “meanings” of malik that were suggested by Zawadi, and examine whether any of these are applicable to S. 5:20. Despite listing plenty of classical Muslim commentators, Zawadi has not provided a satisfactory solution to the problem outlined in my original article.

Before we examine those other proposed meanings, one by one, we need to establish the historical context in which Moses (allegedly) made that statement in S. 5:20. The quranic context is found in S. 5:20-26:

     And (remember) when Moses said unto his people: O my people!
Remember Allah's favour unto you, how He placed among you prophets,
and He made you kings, and gave you that (which) He gave not to
any (other) of (His) creatures.
      O my people! Go into the holy land which Allah hath ordained for
you. Turn not in flight, for surely ye turn back as losers:
     They said: O Moses! Lo! a giant people (dwell) therein and lo! we
go not in till they go forth from thence.
When they go forth from thence,
then we will enter (not till then).
     Then out spake two of those who feared (their Lord, men) unto
whom Allah had been gracious: Enter in upon them by the gate,
for if ye enter by it, lo! ye will be victorious. So put your trust (in Allah)
if ye are indeed believers.
     They said: O Moses! We will never enter (the land) while they are
in it. So go thou and thy Lord and fight! We will sit here.
     He said: My Lord! I have control of none but myself and my
brother, so distinguish between us and the wrong-doing folk.
     (Their Lord) said: For this the land will surely be forbidden them
for forty years that they will wander in the earth, bewildered.
So grieve not over the wrongdoing folk. (Pickthall’s translation)

This passage clearly refers to an incident that is reported in more detail in the Torah, Numbers 13:1–14:38. It took place somewhere between one and at most two years after Moses had led the Children of Israel out of Egypt. What is the situation? The Children of Israel had been slaves to the Egyptians for many decades, probably for more than a hundred years. After God had liberated them from the yoke of the Egyptians and Moses had led them out of Egypt, they were traveling nomads, wandering around in the wilderness of the Sinai desert, camping in tents, and depending daily on God’s miraculous provision of food and water. This is the background against which the following Muslim suggestions have to be read.

First, Zawadi presents these “meanings”:

Imam az-Zamakhshari in his commentary has it:

And it is said: Al Malik is he who has a spacious residence with running water. And it is also said: whoever has a house and servant. And it is also said: whoever has money that is not needed to be spent in order to get rid of burdens and necessities. (Az-Zamakhshari, Al Kashaaf, Commentary on Surah 5:20, Source)

Far be it from me to ridicule az-Zamakhshari. I don’t know how much he knew about the Bible or about history. But with all the knowledge that is available in today’s information age, much of it being “just a click away”, I really have to ask: Is Zawadi seriously proposing these suggestions as possible meanings of this verse? That appears to be a major breakdown of common sense.

There are plenty of issues here. First, a claim is not a proof. Could Zawadi please quote for us classical texts in which “al-malik” is actually used in any of these proposed meanings? Excuse me for being skeptical, but this classical commentator has only collected (or invented?) claims without giving any evidence that these are actually established meanings. “It is said” is merely a claim. Where is the evidence? Who said this?1 And, more importantly, on what factual basis has this been said?

What would constitute evidence that certain words have certain meanings? On what basis are various meanings of a word included in dictionaries? Only when we actually find them used in this meaning in real texts that were written independently of (and if possible, earlier than) the text on which we want to apply those (unusual) meanings.

Again: Zamakhshari recognized there is a problem but then merely provides us with three claims in order to resolve the difficulty of this verse. There is no evidence that this word was actually used in any of these alleged meanings. The very fact that Zamakhshari proposes three different meanings is evidence that he is himself groping around in the dark and does not have a definite answer.

Second, even under the assumption that these are rare but real, genuine meanings of “al-malik”, which one of them does provide a possible meaning for this verse? Is any of these meanings applicable to S. 5:20?

When Moses was talking to the people of Israel in the wilderness, close to the border to land of Canaan which God wanted to give to them, not one of them had “a spacious residence with running water”. To even make such a suggestion is utterly silly.

The entirety of the people of Israel had been liberated from slavery just months ago (less than two years). They were traveling nomads living in tents. Can you imagine Moses saying to them, “Remember how God made you people who have “a house and servant”?

When God liberated the Israelites from slavery, they became all free. God did not liberate some to be masters and others to be servants. (Without question, later, over many years, some will become rich and others poor, some will become masters and others servants. But at the beginning, they were all liberated equally.)

Certainly, the Israelites would eventually have houses, but only after entering the Promised Land. However, at the time when this speech was supposedly given, they were not there yet. They were still living in tents in the wilderness. And Moses’ alleged statement is clearly in the past tense: “O my people! Call in remembrance the favour of Allah unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you …”

And the third meaning proposed by az-Zamakhshari doesn’t fare any better in the historical and the quranic context.2

Did Zawadi refer to az-Zamakhshari because he truly believes that this commentator proposed a good solution to the problem? If not, why does he quote him? If yes, which one of them does Zawadi think is that solution and appropriate meaning?

Now, I agree, words do not always have their strict literal meaning, but are occasionally used in metaphorical ways. In English, there is the expression, “My home is my castle.” Nevertheless, most homes clearly are not castles. The word “castle” has a well-defined meaning, and a hut is not a castle. Even spacious mansions are not castles. And everyone understands that a man using this expression is not saying that he owns a real castle, but only that he feels secure in his home and it is a place where he can withdraw and relax.

Similarly, a young man who is given a large, powerful car to drive may feel like he is “the king of the road”, but that bubble bursts as soon as he is stopped by the police and he gets a speeding ticket with a hefty fine. Then he knows, he is not the king, but subject to the law of the land just as everybody else. The true king could order the highway to be closed to the public and then he could race down the road to his heart’s content, and nobody would give him a speeding ticket. But owning an expensive car does not make anyone a king; nor does having a house or a servant.3

One major obstacle for finding a reasonable interpretation of the statement in S. 5:20 is that in this verse Moses does not say: “he made you like kings (in a certain sense)” but “he made you kings”. There is simply no indication in the text that the word is used metaphorically.

Zawadi then appeals to as-Suyuti in the next quote:

Al Suyuti states:

And, mention, when Moses said to his people, 'O my people, remember God's favour to you, when He established among you, that is, from among you, prophets, and established you as kings, possessing servants and retinues, and gave you such as He had not given to any in all the worlds, in the way of manna and quails, the parting of the sea and other things. (Jalal ud-Din Siyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Commentary on Surah 5:20, Source)

Al Suyuti states that they were like kings in that they possessed servants and retinues.

As already indicated, the main problem is: The Qur’an does not say “made you LIKE kings”. There no “like” in the text.

The second substantial problem is still the same as the one we raised in our discussion of the claim by az-Zamakhshari. Where are those servants and retinues coming from?

What is “retinue”? Here are a couple of definitions:

The retainers or attendants accompanying a high-ranking person.

a band of attendants accompanying an important person

the servants, officials etc who accompany a person of importance. (Source)

The body of retainers who follow a prince or other distinguished person;
a train of attendants; a suite. (Source)

It should be pretty obvious that this definition cannot apply to all of the people of Israel. Not everyone can be a high-ranking person. If everyone is high-ranking where are the lower ranks? In fact, what does rank mean in that case?4

How many more people did the Israelites take with them when they left Egypt so that they all had servants and retinue?

Note again that the formulation in this verse is not only in the past tense (what time does the Qur’an refer to?) but it clearly distinguishes between the prophets and the kings in the sense that Allah “produced prophets AMONG you” but “made YOU kings”. In other words, if we want to take the formulation in the Qur’an seriously, then only some of them were made prophets but all of them had been made kings.5

Mr. Zawadi, do you actually believe that as-Suyuti’s “explanation” is a credible and satisfactory interpretation of this verse?

Never mind, let’s move on, since we have even more suggestions:

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi has it in his commentary:

Al Suddi said: It means and we made you free persons who own themselves after you were in the possession of the Copts as people of the Jizya, and no one would conquer you successfully.

Secondly: Every person who was a Messenger or Prophet was a king because he owned the command of his community and he owns the right to behave the way with them as he pleases. He had a piercing and effective control over them, so he was a king over them and that is why Allah said:

Or do they envy mankind for what God hath given them of his bounty? but We had already given the people of Abraham the Book and Wisdom, and conferred upon them a great kingdom. (Surah 4:64)

Thirdly, their ancestors and successors had kings and great people, and it could be said to those who have kings in their ancestry or in future generations "You are kings by way of borrowing"

Fourthly, whoever is independent in terms of his living and is not in need for anyone, he is a malik. Al Zajjaj said: The malik is he who has people enter upon him with his permission. Al Dahhak said: Their houses used to be spacious and it had running water, and they had a lot of money and servants doing what they ordered, and whoever is like that is a malik. (Fakhar ad-Din ar-Razi, Tafsir Al Kabir, Commentary on Surah 5:20, Source)

Imam Razi has done an excellent job explaining the different possible meanings of the word malik and how all of them could be easily harmonized with Surah 5:20 in light of history.

Does Zawadi actually believe what he writes and publishes? Does he really think that all these meanings are applicable to and make sense of S. 5:20? Is a Muslim not allowed to read the classical commentaries with a critical mind? Does he have to believe them and praise them no matter how much nonsense they contain?

Let’s examine these suggestions one by one:

Al Suddi said: It means and we made you free persons who own themselves after you were in the possession of the Copts as people of the Jizya, and no one would conquer you successfully.

Although a king is usually a free person, that does not make every free person a king. And even kings have been imprisoned at times, and their imprisonment as such did not rob them of their kingship, i.e. their rightful status as king of a certain nation. In any society or nation (that is organized as a monarchy) there are usually many free people, but only one king. As-Suddi simply makes another claim. But where is the evidence that “king” is merely a synonym for a free person? Even more, the final part, “and no one would conquer you successfully”, is utterly wrong again. The Jews have been subject to the rule of other nations much longer than they have been free and ruling their own country. They were conquered, occupied and ruled by the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Turks. They did not even have their own nation at the time of Muhammad (when they were under Byzantine rule) or at the time when that particular Muslim commentary was written (and the Islamic empire ruled that area). So what is as-Suddi or what is ar-Razi talking about? This may be the personal opinion of as-Suddi, and ar-Razi may have liked it, but it still remains nothing but a personal opinion that is not substantiated by anything.

Again, we need to ask: Can Zawadi produce any classical Arabic text in which “malik” is used to refer to people who are merely free, i.e. not slaves?

Secondly: Every person who was a Messenger or Prophet was a king because he owned the command of his community and he owns the right to behave the way with them as he pleases. He had a piercing and effective control over them, so he was a king over them and that is why Allah said:

Or do they envy mankind for what God hath given them of his bounty? but We had already given the people of Abraham the Book and Wisdom, and conferred upon them a great kingdom. (Surah 4:64)

That is simply wrong and a statement of great ignorance. Most prophets about whom we read in the Bible did not have political power. In fact, several of these prophets were persecuted or even imprisoned by the various kings who did not like the message of these prophets (e.g. Elijah, Jeremiah, etc.) The king held the political power6 while the prophet (or prophets) had moral authority but did not have the means to enforce obedience. Moreover, the prophets in the Bible did not own the right to behave in any way with their people as they pleased.7 Most prophets did not have any effective control over their people, neither over individuals nor over the nation as a whole. Many of the prophets were believed only by a few people in the nation of Israel during their lifetime.

Even the verse from the Qur’an (S. 4:54 not 4:64) which ar-Razi tries to connect with this thought makes little sense and does not help to explain S. 5:20. Abraham himself lived as a stranger in a foreign country. He did not have any kingdom, let alone a great one; nor did his immediate descendants who continued to live as strangers first in Canaan and then in Egypt and were even reduced to slavery for a long time. The first and only great kingdom of the Jews was the kingdom of David and Solomon, about a thousand years after Abraham (and several hundred years after Moses), and that kingdom was split in two after Solomon’s death and never became great again. Certainly not great in any objective sense when compared with other kingdoms of its time or other times, like Egypt, Assyria, the Persian empire, the Roman empire, or later the British empire. However, the topic of our discussion is S. 5:20, and the question is: how does S. 4:54 that speaks of a great kingdom that was given to the descendants of Abraham (at some later time in the future) clarify the statement of S. 5:20 that Allah had made the Israelites of Moses’ time kings?

Finally, the whole of this second point is irrelevant and explains nothing. EVEN IF one could say that every prophet is also a king (in the sense described by ar-Razi), since S. 5:20 states that only some of them were prophets, and by implication, only these few were kings in that sense. That leaves completely unexplained why the vast majority of Israelites – who did not happen to be prophets – are also called kings.

Thirdly, their ancestors and successors had kings and great people, and it could be said to those who have kings in their ancestry or in future generations "You are kings by way of borrowing"

Frankly, such silly “explanations” are an indication that ar-Razi was rather desperate to find any kind of solution to this problem, however weak it may be. As explained in the original article, the first king of the people of Israel was Saul, who reigned nearly 400 years after Moses. So, the Israelites whom Moses addressed did not have any kings in their ancestry from whom they could “borrow” their kingship.8 Moreover, the verse does not say, “Allah will make kings of you in a distant future” but it is formulated in the past tense throughout, and explicitly calls the Israelites to remember what Allah had already done. It does not say, “He will place kings among you” but “Remember Allah's favour unto you, how He placed among you prophets, and He made you kings, …”

Fourthly, whoever is independent in terms of his living and is not in need for anyone, he is a malik. Al Zajjaj said: The malik is he who has people enter upon him with his permission. Al Dahhak said: Their houses used to be spacious and it had running water, and they had a lot of money and servants doing what they ordered, and whoever is like that is a malik.

That is mostly a repetition of what az-Zamakhshari has written, and it hasn’t become any better by repeating it. It is a list of claims with no evidence, and even if some of these could be meanings of the word, these meanings are still not applicable to the Israelites at that time.

Old claims do not automatically turn into truth simply because they have been repeated many times. Old claims are just as much in need of being proven as new claims before they can be accepted.

Let’s turn to Zawadi’s final “proof text”.

Ibn Kathir has it in his commentary:

Allah said next,

(made you kings) `Abdur-Razzaq recorded that Ibn `Abbas commented: "Having a servant, a wife and a house.'' In his Mustadrak, Al-Hakim recorded that Ibn `Abbas said, "A wife and a servant, and, a [sic]

(and gave you what He had not given to any other among the nations (`Alamin).) means, during their time.'' Al-Hakim said, "Sahih according to the criteria of the Two Sahihs, but they did not collect it.'' Qatadah said, "They were the first people to take servants.'' A Hadith states,

(He among you who wakes up while healthy in body, safe in his family and having the provision for that very day, is as if the world and all that was in it were collected for him.) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Source)

The above hadith is found in Sunan Al Tirmidhi, Hadith no. 2268, Source and it has been authenticated by Shaykh Al Albani in Silsilatil Ahaadeeth Al Saheeha, Hadith no. 2318.

Nothing really new here either. Now a wife is added to the house and the servant, but the Israelites at the time of Moses during their wanderings in the wilderness still didn’t have houses and most of them certainly did not have servants. It does not become any more credible or relevant, no matter how many Muslim commentators repeat the same mantra.

Being healthy and safe and having enough to eat is a wonderful thing, but it does not make anyone a king, even if he may feel that way because he is a happy and content man. The definition of a king is something else. It has objective criteria and is independent of feelings.

The statement by Qatadah adds another wrong and utterly ignorant claim. Who is “they”? Since it is a comment on “made you kings” it has to refer to the Israelites in Moses’ time who are addressed in that verse. However, the Bible states that already Abraham and Lot had servants (Genesis 12:5, 16; 13:7; 14:14; 15:2; etc.) several hundred years earlier. Even the Qur’an states that Joseph (roughly 300 years before Moses) was sold as a slave (S. 12:20) to the Egyptians. Finally, the Israelites were slaves to the Egyptians before and until God liberated them through Moses. How then could the Israelites have been the first people to take slaves? (Unless Zawadi wants to claim that the Israelites were kings already when they were still slaves to the Egyptians.)

Moreover, archeological records prove it beyond any doubt that there have been servants and slaves long before Moses’ time, and they existed in many nations. Does Zawadi want to make us believe that the Egyptian and Sumerian empires, a thousand years before Abraham, did not have any slaves or servants, only free people?

In conclusion: None of the proposed meanings really works. Most of them are utterly impossible, and it is laughable that they have even been proposed. None of them are convincing. I haven’t seen one that stands a chance for providing a satisfactory interpretation of S. 5:20. Therefore, the problem remains.

All these quotations from the classical commentators merely prove that Muslims became aware of the problem in this verse a long time ago, but their explanations are all weak and unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, Zawadi will certainly want to disagree with my conclusion. However, if he wants to continue the discussion on this matter, Zawadi should first decide on a meaning that he actually wants to believe and defend. So far he has not committed himself to anything, and I do not envy him for having to make this choice.

Zawadi tries to avert a potential criticism:

Jochen might argue back that we must examine the word malik according to the language that Moses (peace be upon him) was speaking. However, we don't know exactly what word Moses (peace be upon him) used. We don't know if he used the word "king" in his language. So when the Qur'an translates Moses's (peace be upon him) statement into Arabic, we must examine the words according to the Arabic language and not the language of Moses (peace be upon him).

No, that would not have been my objection. However, Zawadi’s response to this imaginary objection is rather weak. There is basically only one word in Hebrew for “king”, and Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages. The Hebrew word is melek, which is used many times in the Hebrew Bible, and also in the Torah in dozens of places, e.g. Genesis 14:1, Exodus 5:4, and Deuteronomy 17:14-20.

However, even if in Hebrew there may have been used another word, nowhere in the Torah or the whole Bible is there any statement of Moses coming remotely close to this alleged saying of Moses in S. 5:20. Since I do not believe that Moses ever said anything like it, even granting any of the meanings proposed by the various Muslim commentators, I see no point in searching alternative Hebrew words for something that was never said.

Moreover, let’s assume that Moses had said it, and let’s assume also that he had used a different word in Hebrew which means something else than a literal king, this then merely implies that the author of the Qur’an was a bad translator who was not able to choose an appropriate word in Arabic to express the meaning of the original statement.

The style of this statement is very quranic. Similar statements can be found many times in the Qur’an, but they do not connect very well with statements in the Bible. Anyway, leaving aside issues of style, it is not just the phrase “he made you kings” which is so obviously wrong because there had not been any kings up to that time. The phrase right before it is also wrong. Moses would never have said, “Remember Allah's favour unto you, how He placed among you prophets, …” – prophets in the plural – because Moses was the very first prophet appointed among and for the people of Israel. What prophets of the past could Moses remind them of? It is possible to imagine that Daniel or Ezekiel, or even Jesus, could have spoken something like that, because they could look back to a long history during which God had sent many prophets to Israel, but it just doesn’t fit the very first prophet to the Children of Israel, who had been with them for the last two to three years, leading them virtually every day, to say, “remember …” as if that is a matter from the distant past which they had nearly forgotten. It is not just the word “kings” that is out of place in S. 5:20, it is the whole statement which lacks credibility.

As quoted at the beginning, Zawadi finished with these words:

In conclusion, the Arabic word malik does not have to literally be referring to a king and it could mean several other things as well. Jochen's job would be to show that the word must be literally be referring to a king in order to have a successful argument, however he has not done so. 

In other words, as long as Zawadi can find somebody who claims – without providing any proof – that malik can also mean something else, my argument falls apart? With such a methodology there cannot ever by any critique of the Qur’an. There will always be a Muslim who will volunteer to claim that this or that word must mean something else than it usually does. Clearly, Zawadi is being silly here.

Instead of trying to cook up far-fetched interpretations for malik – none of which has been substantiated with actual texts in which they appear – we should examine how the Qur’an uses this word.

Referring to Allah, malik occurs in 1:4; 20:114; 23:116; 54:55; 59:23; 62:1; 114:2.

Referring to human beings, malik occurs in these passages:

  • 2:246-247 (King Saul),
  • 12:43,50,54 (the king/ruler/pharaoh of Egypt at the time of Joseph)
  • 12:72 (referring to Joseph as king since he is the active ruler of Egypt)
  • 12:76 (the “law of the king”, i.e. the sovereign ruler of the land)
  • 18:79 (making reference to a certain unknown king, but clearly a person commanding an army since he was able to seize any ship he wanted)
  • 27:34 (kings in the plural; it is a general statement, but clearly refers to kings who are ruling a nation and go to war with other nations)

In all of these instances, “malik” refers to the political ruler, a person who (in human terms) has the absolute and sovereign power over a nation. The word is also used for Allah since he has absolute sovereign power not only over a country but over the whole world, and he is the judge at the final judgment. In 20:114 and 23:116 the Qur’an uses the phrase “Allahu almaliku alhaqqu”, i.e. “Allah is the true king”, who has absolute power and authority in contrast to earthly kings who have only a relative power and are sovereign only as far as God permits them. However, the Qur’an knows nothing of these alleged meanings that the commentators are trying to place on “malik” in order to save S. 5:20 from stating something that is objectively wrong.

Let me list a couple more references where the related word “mulk” (usually translated as kingdom or kingship) is used, and the case becomes even more impressive. There are several dozen verses stating that the kingdom of the heavens and the earth belongs to Allah (2:107; 3:189; 5:17,40,120; 7:158, etc) but these are not controversial.9 Looking at instances when the term is used in regard to human beings, we find that the Qur’an speaks of the kingdom of Saul, the first Israelite king (2:247-248), and of David (2:251; 38:20), Solomon (38:35), and Pharaoh (43:52). Joseph was given (part) of the kingdom (12:101). Abraham argues with the ruler of the land, who was given the kingdom (2:258). Again, in each case it is a real political kingdom that is in view, not a metaphorical kingdom of “my house with a vegetable garden” or a kingdom that consists merely of  “a spacious residence with running water” or “a herd or camels” or anything else that would indicate the possession of a certain amount of material wealth.

The Qur’an does not know anything of metaphorical kings or kingdoms. The term is always and exclusively used for a person or a realm of political power.

If Allah had wanted to say to the Israelites in S. 5:20: “Remember that He … made you free” or “made you wealthy” or “gave you houses with running water” he could easily have said so. But he did not. Instead he used a word that means literally king in every other instance in the Qur’an.

The Qur’an uses the word very consistently and always with the classical literal meaning of a person with sovereign, far-reaching power over a nation. And not surprisingly, when referring to humans, it is translated as “king” by Muslim and non-Muslim translators alike in all those verses, including S. 5:20.

I have not found the word malik used in the Qur’an with any of these alleged meanings that Zawadi and the classical commentators have tried to bring forward in their commentaries on S. 5:20.

In my view, all evidence points to the conclusion that the word also means “kings” in S. 5:20 and the problem remains: The statement put into the mouth of Moses is wrong.

Obviously, Muhammad did not deliberately make mistakes. He did not purposely write something which he knew to be wrong. In my original article, I explained how this error may have occurred, i.e. how this misunderstanding may have arisen in Muhammad’s mind. In the appendix to this article, I will outline a possible connection of this verse with some other verses in the Qur’an which provides another possible explanation for this error.

Again, Zawadi’s final words were:

In conclusion, the Arabic word malik does not have to literally be referring to a king and it could mean several other things as well. Jochen's job would be to show that the word must be literally be referring to a king in order to have a successful argument, however he has not done so. 

In other words, Zawadi CLAIMED that this word can have some other meanings, and therefore my argument is nullified. Really?

I have made my argument, and I did so carefully, both here and in my original article. Zawadi has merely collected some claims but has not brought any evidence for them. He has not put together a careful argument for any of the allegedly possible interpretations. He only listed various claims and thinks that this has invalidated my argument. No, he needs to make an actual argument for what it means.

I am writing for people who actually want to know the truth, and who want to use common sense in order to recognize truth, for people who evaluate arguments with a sound mind. Nobody can convince those who do not want to be persuaded and instead grasp for every straw in order to justify their faith in the Qur’an and cling to their belief in the prophethood of Muhammad, no matter how weak the arguments are that are brought in order to support it.

As we have seen in this case, when Muslims invest enough effort they can always construct an argument that a certain word or phrase or statement in the Qur’an may actually mean something else than what the usual or plain meaning suggests. However, this comes at a price. Despite the fact that the Qur’an claims to be the pinnacle of eloquence, this statement is yet another example that Allah was not able to communicate clearly. The more Muslims claim that this verse and that verse and the next verse as well actually mean something different than their plain meaning, the more it looks like the author of the Qur’an had a communication disability and the Qur’an is not so eloquent after all when the natural understanding of words and statements is frequently wrong and we constantly have to search hard for potential other meanings to save the Qur’an from errors and contradictions.

All this “explaining away” may work once or twice, but if Muslims have to constantly explain away so many problems, then the case for the divine origin of the Qur’an becomes less and less credible.

Anyway, I have offered my observations and the reasons for my conclusion. Now it is up to the reader to decide who has made the better case and by which arguments he wants to be convinced.

Individual or collective?

Even though not proposed by Zawadi or the classical commentators quoted by him, some may want to try another interpretation.

The majority of the suggestions proposed by the Muslim commentators were in the sense of wealth. If we assume that the author of the Qur’an wanted to say that he made the Israelites rich or strong or powerful (all of which are attributes usually associated with kingship) then we would not have to understand this in the way that every individual Israelite was made rich or powerful but could understand this attribute in a collective sense, i.e. as a nation or as a community they became rich or powerful.

However, being a king is not a collective attribute. A community or nation cannot be king. The word “king” always refers to an individual, and therefore the plural “kings” has to refer to a plurality of individuals who are all kings.

Assuming that that author of the Qur’an wanted to say that he made Israel as a nation rich or powerful, then he simply chose the wrong word and he badly mis-communicated the intended meaning.

No wonder that even the classical commentators have not tried to use “malik” as an attribute that refers to the Children of Israel collectively. Linguistically, this does not work.

Appendix: Was S. 5:20 inspired by another error in the Qur’an?

Here I want to present a thought that struck me while searching for all verses in the Qur’an that contain one of the words king, kings, kingdom, etc.

There is one passage where “kingdom” is connected to a whole people instead of only one king:

And a believing man of Pharaoh's family, who hid his faith, said: Would ye kill a man because he saith: My Lord is Allah, and hath brought you clear proofs from your Lord? If he is lying, then his lie is upon him; and if he is truthful, then some of that wherewith he threateneth you will strike you. Lo! Allah guideth not one who is a prodigal, a liar. O my people! Yours is the kingdom to-day, ye being uppermost in the land. But who would save us from the wrath of Allah should it reach us? Pharaoh said: I do but show you what I think, and I do but guide you to wise policy. S. 40:28-29 Pickthall

This passage refers again to a real, political kingdom: the kingdom of Egypt. The statement implies that the kingdom of Egypt belongs to a certain group who are “uppermost in the land”. Let’s call them the Egyptians (for lack of a better word) who are, however, only one of the people groups living in this kingdom. There is at least one other group: the Children of Israel.

Nevertheless, even if there is a whole people, or ethnic group, who are the ruling group of a nation, and “the kingdom is theirs”, there is still only one king. They are not all called kings.

Now, with this passage in the background, look at the following verse:

Thus (it was)! And We made other people inherit them (i.e. We made the Children of Israel to inherit the kingdom of Egypt). S. 44:28 Al-Hilali & Khan

And the parenthetical remark is not only the interpretation of these particular translators, it is also the interpretation of this verse that is found in the commentary by Ibn Kathir. Where is this strange idea coming from? Most readers will be shocked to learn that the Qur’an actually teaches that the Israelites took over Egypt. This monumental historical error is discussed in the article, Israel, the Quran and the Promised Land.

Nevertheless, since that is the teaching of the Qur’an, perhaps the formulation in S. 5:20 is connected to this conviction, and “made you kings” is supposed to mean that the Israelites are now kings (i.e. the rulers over the kingdom of Egypt) instead of the Egyptians?

In addition to the explanations given in the original article, this might provide another possible explanation how Muhammad could have arrived at the wrong statement “and made you kings” in S. 5:20.

So, “yours is the kingdom” (S. 40:29) may well mean “one of yours” (i.e. one of your own people group) is the king, first one of the Egyptians and then one of the Israelites. Nevertheless, even if a group of people have the kingdom that still does not make them all kings. The formulation of S. 5:20 is “made you kings” and not “gave you the kingdom”, and therefore the actual formulation still remains wrong even if we grant that the other error of “Israel taking over Egypt” might have inspired it.

In my view, it is possible that there is a connection between these two errors of the Qur’an. The “Israel inherits Egypt” error (spread over several passages in the Qur’an) provides a possible background and explanation for the kings error of S. 5:20. Be that as it may, these two claims are wrong both individually and as a package.

Actually, the above outlined connection is even supported by az-Zamakhshari. After I had finished my rebuttal article to Zawadi, I sent it for review and feedback to Bassam Khoury. Here is the relevant part of his response:

… and the funniest thing is what az-Zamakhshari says – found in the first two lines of Zawadi’s source (here) which he did not quote – from his comments on the verse. This will also give you an insight into Zawadi’s level of honesty:

made you kings --- Because He gave them Pharaoh’s kingdom after him; and He gave them the kingdom of the giants after them; and because kings were as many among them as prophets. It was also said [in other words: what follows is mere hearsay] they were enslaved to the Egyptians and Allah freed them, so He called that kingship...” [I colored that part in red below.] After that comes the part that was quoted by Zawadi. As you can see, he ignored the most damaging comment to his argument.

وجعلكم ملوكا " لأنه ملكهم بعد فرعون ملكه وبعد الجبابرة ملكهم : ولأن الملوك تكاثروا فيهم تكاثر الأنبياء . وقيل : كانوا مملوكين في أيد القبط فأنقذهم الله فسمي إنقاذهم ملكا . وقيل : الملك من له مسكن واسع فيه ماء جار . وقيل : من له بيت وخدم . وقيل : من له مال لا يحتاج معه إلى تكلف الأعمال وتحمل المشاق

Also Ibn Agybah said: “made you kings --- i.e. ‘made kings among you’, they had a large number of kings, every prophet used to come to them accompanied by a king, and the king would carry out the prophet’s laws, so they had the house of the prophethood and the house of the kings, which is very well known. …” (Abu Abbas Ahmad Ibn Agybah, a Moroccan Sufi commentator who died in 1224 AH, in his tafsir called The Shore-less Sea, source)

Therefore, az-Zamakhshari confirms the potential connection between the quranic teaching that Israel was given Egypt, Pharaoh’s kingdom, and S. 5:20 since the latter is explained by the former.

Now that we have seen these additional “explanations”, let’s quickly comment on the other interpretations proposed by az-Zamakhshari: “He gave them the kingdom of the giants” doesn’t work since that had not yet happened at the time this statement was supposedly made – apart from the already discussed problem that conquering and occupying a kingdom does not make all of the conquerors kings. Neither does “because kings were as many among them as prophets” explain anything, since the number of prophets and kings together is still only a tiny portion of all the Israelites. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the number of the kings and the prophets was identical. That is another claim that would need to be substantiated. Is there a Muslim who wants to provide a list of the names of the prophets and kings so that we can count them? If they can’t, on what basis did az-Zamakhshari make this claim? (Did he receive this information as special revelation from Allah?) Finally, “they were enslaved to the Egyptians and Allah freed them, so He called that kingship” is the same as as-Suddi’s explanation quoted in ar-Razi’s commentary, so there is no further comment necessary.

Regarding the “explanation” from Ibn Agybah, that is again merely a claim, and actually a collection of ignorant statements. Just as az-Zamakhshari, he “matches” kings and prophets without substantiating this claim. Moreover, although the first couple of kings were specifically chosen by God and this choice then made public by a prophet10 but after David, the second king, the kingship became hereditary and (usually) one of the sons ascended to the throne when his father died. None of the prophets was bringing a king with him when he appeared among the people. Secondly, most prophets did not bring any laws. The law was already given by Moses, long ago. Third, more often than not the prophets stood in opposition to the kings. The prophets were sent to the kings because the kings and the people were disobedient to the Law of Moses and the prophets came to announce God’s judgment for their disobedience. Many of the prophets were opposed, persecuted and some of them even killed by the kings. The expression “house of kings” may be okay, since kingship in Israel was hereditary, but “house of prophethood” is somewhat strange since prophets did not come from one family line, they could be from any of the Israelite tribes, and usually were not descendants of each other. God chose them individually. Finally, there were times when Israel had a king but no prophet, and times when there were prophets but no kings. Are these Muslim commentators actually thinking and researching before they publish their claims? These commentators say one wrong and ignorant thing after the other and then they conclude the list of false claims with “which is very well known”. Incredible!



1 Was this stated in a context that was independent from the Qur’an, e.g. a diplomatic letter, a contract, or a text on a historical event, preferably in pre-Islamic times? Or is Zamakhshari merely repeating a claim made by some other Muslim who was struggling to give meaning to the very same statement in the Qur’an that Zamakshari is commenting upon? The first would constitute positive evidence, the second would merely be a repetition that does not add any weight to the claim.

2 One important aspect is this: In this verse, the Israelites are exhorted, “O my people! Call in remembrance the favour of Allah unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples.” In other words, something very special and extraordinary is in view, and no Muslim will deny that the first and third elements in the list are very special. Having more money than is needed to spend on bare necessities is a good thing, but that does not really fit into the sequence of this statement. It sounds very much “out of place”. Prophets and kings are a match, but prophets and “having some spare cash” are a rather strange mixture.

3 “Being the king” or (merely) “feeling like a king” is a considerable difference, just as (merely) “being convinced to be a prophet” is not quite the same as actually “being a true prophet of God”.

4 For this reason, even if the Israelites had already had several kings before the time of Moses, the statement, as it is, would still be wrong. A nation cannot consist only of kings. If there are only kings, whom are they reigning over? And if they have no subjects, can they legitimately be called kings?

5 And that is the reason that whatever meaning one may be able to give to “malik”, if not completely wrong the statement will most likely still remain awkward. The entirety of a nation consists of too many different people that one attribute can legitimately be applied to all of them, or one function appropriately be ascribed to all of them.

6 I am glad to see that ar-Razi has actually a grasp of what being a king means when he says “was a king because he owned the command of his community and he owns the right to behave the way with them as he pleases. He had a piercing and effective control over them, so he was a king over them”. A king is a sovereign; he makes laws and he has the power to enforce those laws.

7 When David – one of the very few prophets who was also a king – transgressed the law of God by committing adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers, and later sent this soldier to his sure death to cover up his sin, God sent to him another prophet, Nathan, who brought him the message that God will punish him.

8 The concept of “borrowing kingship” is completely silly. Nevertheless, let’s think about it for a moment. There were no ancestral kings to borrow from. Israel had never had kings and did not even know at that time that they would ever have kings in the future. Perhaps from a perspective “outside of time” or “after the fact” (e.g. at the time of Muhammad) one could associate (or rather confuse) the Israelites of Moses’ time with the kings that would be appointed many centuries later. However, this connection can only be made when those kings had already become reality. To the Israelites of Moses’ time such a statement would not make any sense. They did not have any kings, they did not even have a prophecy that they would ever have kings in the future, so how could they understand that the past tense statement “made you kings” is borrowing from the future? Moses could not have said this to them. At that time, neither in the Bible nor in the Qur’an, had the Israelites been given a promise that they would have kings. This statement is clear evidence that it was fabricated by somebody who had heard of the existence of kings in the history of Israel, and then put this formulation into the mouth of Moses, thereby producing an anachronistic statement that made no sense to its alleged audience. The statement of S. 5:20 is without doubt a fabrication.

9 Obviously, Allah’s mulk is not a political kingdom but refers to all of creation. Nevertheless, this term is used since all of creation is the realm where Allah exercises his power. Everything happens according to the will of Allah. Everything is subject to his rule.

10 Samuel anointed Saul to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 8-10, specifically 10:1,24-25). Later Samuel anoints David to replace Saul as king (1 Samuel 16:1-13) because of Saul’s disobedience to the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 13:13; 15:23). We see that already the first king does not carry out the commands that were given by the prophet.

Rebuttals to Bassam Zawadi
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