sajada in the Qur’an

To submit

This article is from The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation.

sajada – to submit

It is true that in standard Arabic sajada can denote the lowering of one’s body towards the ground. For example, it can be used to describe a camel lowering itself to allow a rider to mount. However, the salient point is that of submission to an authority or directive, a condition for which the physical process is a mere expression.

To illustrate the distinction, let’s say a camel were to lower itself not on command prior to a race but for some reason of its own during a race. This would be the same physical action as before the race, but it would not be sajada because the context would show it to be an act of rebellion or defiance, or one arising from some other motivation known to the camel and not originating with the rider.

The question, then, is in what sense the Qur’an uses the verb sajada.

It is easy to demonstrate that the Qur’an employs the s-j-d root in contexts where physical prostration is impossible as a value; for example where the adverb sujjadan is used with regard to entering a city (2:58, 4:154, 7:161). It is not possible to enter a city with one’s forehead on the ground, or at any rate, extremely impractical, especially if one is expected to fight a battle – which is the case in the instances cited here.

The broader question now extends to the verb proper.

At 12:4 Yūsuf has a dream in which eleven stars and the sun and the moon are sājidīn to him. All the items named are spherical – or at the least round – and suspended in space. It is physically impossible for a round thing in space to prostrate in any meaningful sense for at least two reasons: firstly, it has no head, so the best it could manage is to roll around and, secondly, because in space there is no ground.

It can submit or obey, however.

The corollary to the point above is found at 12:100 where the dream is fulfilled. A typical Traditionalist rendering of the beginning of 12:100 reads:

And he raised his parents upon the throne, and they bowed to him in prostration. And he said, “O my father, this is the explanation of my vision of before. My Lord has made it reality[…] [Saheeh International]

The operative verb in this case (rendered above bowed) does not mean to bow at all; it means to fall down (Arabic – kharra) and it is used in that sense in every instance: 7:143, 12:100, 16:26, 17:107, 17:109, 19:58, 19:90, 22:31, 25:73, 32:15, 34:14, 38:24. It is used of Mūsā falling down unconscious and Sulaymān falling down dead. This is not bowing, or even any kind of controlled prostration. Perhaps collapse is a good way of summarising the action in such contexts.

The core features of the verse in question are these:

  • Yūsuf raised his two parents (the object is in the dual) upon the throne
  • They (plural) fell down (i.e. collapsed) sājidūn (rendered by the Traditionalist as in prostration)
  • Yūsuf converses with his father

Aged parents raised on thrones are not given to falling prostrate. That which falls is in the masculine plural and indicates the brothers, who had every reason to seek Yūsuf’s forgiveness and good graces. And it is while they are so placed that Yūsuf turns to his father and speaks to him.

That is the plain reading of the text.

Even if we wink at the fact that kharra means fall down and not prostrate or bow the scene still does not place Yūsuf’s aged parents on the floor – they have been raised upon the throne and Yūsuf is speaking with his father (unless we are to say that Yūsuf placed his aged parents on the throne then quickly threw them on the floor so he could speak to them).

More dramatically, if sajada really meant prostrate at 12:4, we would have a scenario at 12:100 in which not only has Yūsuf’s famous dream not been fulfilled (since Yaʿqūb is conversing with his son rather than lying prostrate on the floor), but in which two great prophets of God, both knowing that sajada in fact means to physically prostrate – are colluding together in a bare-faced lie at the culmination of perhaps the greatest historical drama of all time (namely, pretending together that the dream has been factually fulfilled when they both know that it has not).

However, if sajada indicates submit (to the will of another) there is no conflict since Yaʿqūb has complied with his son’s wishes: he has come to the land from which his son called him and is placed where his son put him.

For the reasons I have summarised above, I am fully satisfied in my own mind that sajada does not – and cannot – denote purely physical prostration in the Qur’an, and that its sense can only be that of the subjection or submission of the will to the authority of another.

The s-j-d root is also found in combination with alqā (to fall). But, again, the significance, albeit physical as with the brothers at 12:100, is primarily an act of submission or of admitting defeat. It is not an act of worship (7:120, 20:70, 26:46) and nor is it controlled prostration in the sense which the Traditionalist wishes to ascribe to it.

I translate sajada across the entire text as to submit.

The meaning and use of masjid (which is based on the s-j-d root) is discussed here.

All instances in the text are footnoted.

References

2:34, 2:34, 2:58, 2:125, 3:43, 3:113, 4:102, 4:154, 7:11, 7:11, 7:11, 7:12, 7:120, 7:161, 7:206, 9:112, 12:4, 12:100, 13:15, 15:29,15:30, 15:31,15:32, 15:33,15:98, 16:48, 16:49, 17:61, 17:61, 17:61, 17:107, 18:50, 18:50, 19:58, 20:70, 20:116, 20:116, 22:18, 22:26, 22:77, 25:60, 25:60, 25:64, 26:46, 26:219, 27:24, 27:25, 32:15, 38:72, 38:73, 38:75, 39:9, 41:37, 41:37, 48:29, 50:40, 53:62, 55:6, 68:42, 68:43, 76:26, 84:21, 96:19.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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