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Slave, Servant or What?

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It was during the summer of 1985 when I discovered how difficult it was to translate words, whose simplicity I used to take for granted.

 was studying French language at the Faculté des Lettres in Nice that summer, along with many other students from all around the world. In particular, I remember a Hungarian couple with whom I used to spend many hours –after school– playing table tennis or talking about my religion. They were simply curious to learn, without prejudice and without any malice. One of the simplest and most fundamental questions they asked me was: “What is the meaning of ‘Abd (عبد) in the word Abdullah?”

My immediate answer was “esclave”, which means slave in French. I saw the repulsion in their faces, which forced me to look immediately for another meaning to convey what has seemed to me to be so simple all this time. I remember myself uttering “adorant” (when in fact what I meant to say was “adorateur” but my French was not good enough to properly articulate the meaning). I had to rely thereafter on Aadel (a law doctorate student from Egypt) to help me translate religious concepts and ideas, for I feared that I might convey the wrong meaning.

I remember looking up the meaning of ‘Abd (عبد) in dictionaries and Qur’an translations after returning home. What I found in English translations (to which I shall limit my discussion here) was either slave or servant. I did not like either one, for reasons to be discussed below. When, however, I had to choose between the two terms either to translate an article or to explain something, I always chose servant over slave.

My lack of enthusiasm towards using either of these two words does not reflect any lack of clarity in my mind as to what does ‘Abd (عبد) mean in Arabic in the context of Abdullah, or what connotations the use of this word in this context reflects.

Classical Arabic lexical dictionaries state that the morpheme ‘A-B-D (د ب ع) is a word that describes a relationship between God and man, as well as between man and man. The plural of the former is ‘Ibaad (عباد), whereas the plural of the later is ‘Abeed (عبيد). The same morpheme ‘A-B-D is the root that makes up the word ‘Ibaadah (عبادة) (worship), ‘Aabed (عابد) (worshipper), ‘Mo-abbad (معبّد) (paved, as in paved road), and ‘Abadeed (عباديد) (many scattered horses).

The context of the word ‘Abd is what determines its exact meaning when it is used in the singular form. Whenever one of its derivatives or one of its plural forms is used, there is but one meaning and one connotation for the form used.

The Arabic word ‘Abd, therefore, denotes a very special relationship when it is used in its singular form in connection with one of the Glorious Names of Allah, such as Abdullah and Abdurrahman, etc. I am not certain that any of the two words used in English translations is capable of encompassing this special relationship. Another aspect that troubles me whenever any of these two words are used is the fact that both words have connotations that are not befitting this special relationship between God and His ‘Ibaad (for lack of a better word).

Referring to some very well known English translations of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad, for example, in his “The Message of the Qur’an” used servant to translate ‘Abd throughout his translation. Another translation, which was revised and edited by Saheeh International, also uses the word servant throughout the volume.

The translation endorsed by King Fahd Holy Qur’an Printing Complex, which is based on the very famous translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, uses servant throughout the translation, with very few exceptions. In these exceptions, the connotation of the word ‘Abd is translated as per the context. Examples of theses exceptions are the translation of ‘Abd as votary in [96:10], and as devotee in [34:9].

In their “Interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qur’an”, Khan and Al-Hilali use the word slave throughout the text. M.M. Pickthal in his “The meaning of the Glorious Qur’an” also uses the word slave to translate ‘Abd.

Jeffrey Lang also chooses the word slave when he translates the word ‘Abd in his book “Even Angels Ask”. He writes: “The Islamic term for worship is ‘ibaadah. It is derived from the same root as ‘abd, the Arabic word for “slave,” and Muslims quite proudly refer to themselves as “slaves of Allah.”’

He then addresses the instinctive resentment felt by those who might not be used to this way of describing the relationship between a believer and his God. But he explains thereafter: “In fact, from the point of view of Islam, all creatures, whether or not they are aware of it, are already slaves of God in the sense that they all serve His ultimate purposes and can accomplish only what He allows them to accomplish… To worship a creation is, to the Muslim, utterly irrational and self-abasing, but to be the slave of God is a Muslim’s highest honor and lifelong goal.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “salve” as follows: “One who is the property, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights.” There are several other definitions given in this dictionary, of which two are noteworthy. A figurative definition is quoted as: “One who is completely under the domination of, or subject to, a specific influence.” And a transferred sense of the definition of the word slave is: “One who submits in a servile manner to the authority or dictation of another or others; a submissive or devoted servant.”

As for the word “servant”, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: “A person of either sex who is under obligation to work for the benefit of a superior, and to obey his (or her) command.” Another definition is given by: “A personal or domestic attendant; one whose duty is to wait upon his master or mistress, or do certain work in his or her household.” And in a wider sense, the dictionary gives the following definition: “One who is under the obligation to render certain services to, and to obey the orders of, a person or a body of persons, especially in return for wages or salary.” Yet another definition in a transferred use is: “A professed lover; one who is devoted to the service of a lady.”

This word was used in contexts with religious signification quite often. The dictionary quotes the use of this word in several English texts dating back as far as the fourteenth century AD. The title ‘Servant of the servants of God’, for example, was given to Pope Gregory the Great circa 1386. The word was used in connection with the devil (“Devils servant”, circa 1340), Christ (“To reward His true servants” circa 1380), and the Lord (“Servant to the Lord” circa 1655).

One definition of servant crosses paths with the word slave, in a most interesting way. The dictionary says that the word “servant”: “In the 14th and 15th centuries often used to render the Latin servus slave. In all the Bible translations from Wyclif [circa 1388] to the Revised Version of 1880-4, the word very often represents the Hebrew דבע (ébed) or the Greek δουλος, which correspond to slave, though this term to Israelitish conditions would perhaps be misleading.”

An objection I have to the use of the word “slave” to translate ‘Abd is based on three arguments. Firstly, humans are born free, except in situations where both father and mother of the born child are slaves. This is the exception, especially after abolishing slavery, and the general rule is that humans are born free. Our relationship with God, in us being His ‘Ibaad, does not provide for a choice of either or. We cannot choose not to be His ‘Ibaad. He says in the Qur’an: “There is no one in the heavens and earth but that he comes to the Most Merciful as a ‘Abd” [19:93].

Secondly, a slave may be freed, which has the connotation of his status being changed from one of lowliness to one of pride and self-esteem. In addition to the fact that we cannot change our status from not being ‘Abd; our relationship with God is the source of our pride and self-esteem when we are His ‘Ibaad, not the opposite.

Thirdly, a man who owns female slaves owns their bodies and he may choose to have an intimate relationship with one of them, hence the term slave-mothers. The mere fact that the word ‘salve’ may have such a connotation is as good reason as any not to use it to translate the word ‘Abd, whenever this word is used in connection with one of the Glorious Names of Allah.

The word “servant” gives the connotation that the one who is being served is benefiting from this service. Allah does not benefit from our service, nor does He need it. If we serve Him, it is to our own benefit only, and this does not fit well with the concept of servant.

Another objection I have to the use of the word “servant” to translate ‘Abd is the issue of loyalty. A servant is loyal to the person he serves, but once his services are no more required or needed, he looks for another master to serve. This change of loyalty with change of masters does not reflect the inseparable nature of ‘Abd to Allah.

It would not be fair, however, just to object to the use of terms that have been used for such a long time and by respected scholars, without suggesting an alternative. I have reflected on this matter for a very long time. And I came up with one suggestion, which may very well not be a better alternative, but at least may kindle a small fire of discussion over this subject, in order to do it justice.

I suggest translating the word ‘Abd, whenever it is used in connection with the Glorious Names of Allah or in religious contexts, with the word “submitter.”

My rationale for this suggestion is based on several arguments. First and foremost, the word carries no negative connotations, as far as I can tell. Another aspect of this word that makes it suitable for this usage is that a Muslim, by definition, is one who submits to Allah. A Muslim’s submission to Allah has to be complete and all-encompassing.

The Qur’anic verse cited above [19:93] shows that everyone in the heavens and earth will submit to Allah. This meaning is further corroborated by verse [13:15] in which Allah says: “And to Allah prostrates whoever is within the heavens and the earth, willingly or by compulsion …” Muhammad Asad comments on this verse by saying: “The expression yasjud (يسجد) (“prostrates himself” or “prostrate themselves”) is a metonym for complete submission to His will…”

When a believer submits willingly and consciously to Allah, he deserves the honour of being ‘Abdullah, or Submitter to Allah. When, on the other hand, a person rejects this special relationship between himself and Allah, he still submits to the will of Allah manifested in the “…natural laws decreed by Him with regard to everything that exists,” according to Muhammad Asad. The unbeliever’s submission, however, will not be honoured by the title ‘Abdullah, for to submit to Allah consciously is the “…Muslim’s highest honour and lifelong goal,” to quote Jeffrey Lang.

1-“The Qur’an. Arabic Text with Corresponding English Meanings”, English revised and edited by Saheeh International, Abulqasim Publishing House, 1997.
2-“The Holy Qur-ân. English translation of the meanings and Commentary”, King Fahd Holy Qur-ân Printing Complex, 1410 H.
3-Muhammad Muhsin Khân and Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilâlî, “Interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qur-ân in the English language”, Dar-us-Salam Publications, 1996.
4-Muhammad Asad, “The Message of the Qur’ân”, the Book Foundation, 2003.
5-M.M. Pickthal, “The Meaning of the Glorious Quran”, Asia Book Corporation of America, 1979.
6- Abdullah Yusuf Ali, “The Holy Qur’ân: Text, Translation and Commentary”, Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, 1987.
7-Jeffrey Lang, “Even Angels Ask: A Journey to Islam in America”, Amana Publications, 2000.
8-The Oxford English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, 1970.

Ibrahim Babelli -

Ibrahim Babelli [Ibraaheem Baabilly] is a research scientist working for Schlumberger Dhahran Carbonate Research Center. He did his undergraduate work in Saudi Arabia and his graduate work in the USA.Read More >>

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