Shaykh Muhammad Imdad Hussain Pirzada

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The literal meaning of the phrase ma ana bi qari’in is ‘I am not a reader’. In the grammar of the Arabic language, the word qari’in (in its Genitive State, or qari’un in its Nominative State) is a Derivative Noun in the form of the Active Present Participle (ism al-fa‘il), and hence – etymologically speaking – it can have the meaning of the Imperfect Tense (al-fi‘l al-mudari‘). In this case, the aforementioned phrase would mean ‘I do not read’ or ‘I will not read’.

Based upon this, the phrase ma ana bi qari’in has three meanings; ‘I am not a reader’, ‘I do not read’ and ‘I will not read’.

However, some people have translated this phrase as ‘I cannot read’ [5] and others as ‘I do not know how to read’ [6]. If these meanings are taken into consideration or accepted, then this will imply that the noble Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was displaying his incompetence, helplessness and constraint in front of Jibril. As if he were saying, “How can I read when I do not know how to read?”

I find myself in complete disagreement with this translation. Not only that, but I consider such a meaning offensive and such a translation an insult to the noble Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). It is quite correct that one possible interpretation of this phrase can be ‘I cannot read’, however, in this specific place and in this specific context, this meaning is completely incorrect. When translating any phrase or text, it is imperative to take into consideration the context of that statement and also the position and status of the personality about whom the statement is being made. Otherwise, the meaning can be completely altered and misconstrued in its entirety. An example from the Qur’an will assist in making this issue clearer.

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