The Traditionalist’s problem with ‘kitab’ in the Qur’an

The meaning of kitāb

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


According to the Traditionalist, kitāb in the Qur’an means something like book or scripture. At least, this is his default position. He is vague about the exact meaning, but it can be understood to be along the lines of a pre-existing scripture which the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an either comprise in total, or form some part of.

But he shifts this position on an ad hoc basis to encompass a range of other meanings including – but not limited to – letter, decree, record and contract as required based on the circumstances created by his a priori adherence to non-Qur’anic teachings.

I accept that kitāb can, and should, indicate different values in different contexts and as a part of different word collocations. I do, however, insist that there be a Qur’anic basis for these values and that they be applied consistently.

Before I present my findings, I will give some small examples of the problems the Traditionalist has in regard to kitāb.

The translation I generally use to present the Traditionalist position renders 3:48 thus:

And He will teach him writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel
[Saheeh International]

The word underlined – writing – corresponds in the Arabic text to al kitāb. However, al kitāb does not mean writing. But the translators felt they had to do something. To see why, we need only look at another translation.

Here is how Pickthall renders the same verse:

And He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel (3:48)

By being more consistent in his rendering, Pickthall has painted himself into an obvious corner; it was obvious to the Saheeh International translators, and will be obvious to the reflective reader. The problem is that – while they are cagey about to what degree and in what way specifically – the Traditionalists are generally agreed that, by default, al kitāb denotes a written revelation in the form of a book. They are also agreed that – leaving aside what exactly we mean by these terms for now – the Torah and the Gospel comprise that written revelation (that is: scripture), to some (probably substantial) extent.

And this is why they got stuck.

If I say that I will teach you French Cuisine and then go on to say that I will also teach you Haute Cuisine and Cuisine Nouvelle I am making a superfluous statement because Haute Cuisine and Cuisine Nouvelle are both parts of the larger institution of cooking known as French Cuisine. This is the problem which Saheeh International is trying to circumvent at 3:48.

The Traditionalist is locked in to a particular understanding of the Qur’an by his non-Qur’anic ḥadīth literature which tells him that al kitāb means a generalised pre-existing scripture (except for when it means something else). In such a case, the best he can do is fudge the issue and hope no-one notices – which, generally, they do not because they are trying to follow a religion rather than to use their minds.

This is, of course, unsatisfactory. But the Traditionalist’s problems are only beginning. This is the Saheeh International translation of 46:30:

They said, “O our people, indeed we have heard a [recited] Book revealed after Moses confirming what was before it which guides to the truth and to a straight path. (46:30)

Here it is the jinn speaking. The word underlined is kitāb and is said by the Traditionalist to refer to the Qur’an. However, logically, it cannot refer to the Qur’an if by Qur’an we mean the totality of that revelation found between chapters al fātiḥah and al nās since this verse itself forms part of the totality of that revelation. One could argue that it means something other than the complete Qur’an, for example a portion of it, but that would mean applying to kitāb in this instance a value which it does not receive in other circumstances.

The Traditionalist has further problems at 29:51:

And is it not sufficient for them that We revealed to you the Book [i.e., the Qur’ān] which is recited to them? Indeed in that is a mercy and reminder for a people who believe. (29:51)

The translation (the underlined portion of which represents the rendering of al kitāb) and the words in brackets all belong to the Traditionalist. The text speaks of a finished thing – al kitāb – which is recited ‘to them’.

While this may be extreme pedantry on my part, I have to state facts as I see them: we have the same problem here as above. Whatever al kitāb means, it simply cannot indicate the book we call the Qur’an (if by the Qur’an we mean the Qur’an as a finished thing – everything from the first verse of al fātiḥah to the last verse of al nās) since 29:51 itself forms a part of that entity which we call the Qur’an. If I write a book on a subject and call that book My Book and I send that book to you and then send you a note telling you about the book I sent you, can my note be rightly said to constitute a part of that book? No, it cannot. In addition – whatever the Qur’an means by kitāb – the Torah and Gospel cannot, on the basis of Qur’anic statements such as this one, comprise constituent parts of it.

I am not impugning the integrity of the Qur’an. I am saying that the Traditionalist has not done his homework, and that what the Qur’an means by kitāb is something other than what he assumes it to mean – at least in some cases.

Below [here: see further articles via the kitab tab] I work through each of the collocations in the Qur’an in which kitāb features. I have reviewed every context and list all instances with conclusions stated in each section.

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 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...

follow me on: