The Qur’an and the Word Taḥrīf


The Qur’an has used the word tarīf only in its literal sense, i.e. distortion in the meaning of the word and its interpretation in a wrong way, which is called misinterpretation (sū’ tafsīr) or conjectural interpretation (tafsīr bi ’r-rayy). Tarīf in this sense refers to the contextual distortion.

Earlier, we have dealt with this noble verse:

يُحَرِّفُونَ الْكَلِمَ عَنْ مَوَاضِعِهِ

“They pervert words from their meanings.”[1]

An mawāḍi‘ihi in this verse refers to the following: after the word is used in its real sense as it appears, or based on the conventional implication of the common meaning, its message is distorted as a treacherous act. For example, in the expression min ba‘di mawāḍi‘ih[2] this meaning has been indicated although taḥrīf means to divert the word from its real meaning.

It is thus stated in Sūrat al-Baqarah:

وَقَدْ كَانَ فَرِيقٌ مِنْهُمْ يَسْمَعُونَ كَلامَ اللَّهِ ثُمَّ يُحَرِّفُونَهُ مِنْ بَعْدِ مَا عَقَلُوهُ

Though a part of them would hear the word of Allah and then they would distort it after they had understood it.”[3]

That is, after understanding that the real meaning – which is what God intends – is contrary to their own interests, they would distort it so as for it to become favourable to them.

As such, Ṭabarsī, and prior to him, Shaykh al-Ṭūsī have described this kind of tarīf as misinterpretation (sū’ ta’wīl). In Al-Tibyān, the late Shaykh says, “Tarīf is of two types, viz. misinterpretation, and changing and substitution.”[4] That is, the intonation of the word is changed in such a way that the meaning it conveys is distorted, such as the case mentioned in verse 78 of Sūrat Āl ‘Imrān.

Shaykh Muḥammad ‘Abduh says:

Amongst the meanings of taḥrīf is [conjectural] interpretation of the word in the sense that it is construed in a way different from its contextual meaning. This is the meaning of taḥrīf being raised because their pretext in denying the Prophet () and his prophethood lies in this meaning [of taḥrīf]. As such, they would interpret in a way the glad tidings of his prophethood.”[5]

‘Abduh implies that the plausible meaning of tarīf mentioned in these verses is the distortion of meaning, and what gave them courage to interpret in a way the glad tidings and therefore to deny the prophethood of the Prophet () is contextual distortion.

In his exegesis of the noble verse, “They pervert words from their meanings,”[6] Zamakhsharī says, “They pervert the word from its [supposed] position,”[7] for if a word is not interpreted according to its apparent meaning or implications, it is tantamount to taking it away from its position.

In sum, the distortion of the New and Old Testaments which is indicated in the Qur’an is either through misinterpretation in the sense of manipulating them contrary to the truth – without any basis from the book – or in addition to it, changing the pronunciation of the words when reading the book. As God says,

 وَإِنَّ مِنْهُمْ لَفَرِيقًا يَلْوُونَ أَلْسِنَتَهُمْ بِالْكِتَابِ لِتَحْسَبُوهُ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَمَا هُوَ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَيَقُولُونَ هُوَ مِنْ عِنْدِ اللَّهِ وَمَا هُوَ مِنْ عِنْدِ اللَّهِ وَيَقُولُونَ عَلَى اللَّهِ الْكَذِبَ وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ

There is indeed a group of them who twist their tongues to mimic the Book, that you may suppose that it is from the Book, though it is not from the Book, and they say, ‘It is from Allah,’ though it is not from Allah, and they attribute lies to Allah, and they know [it].”[8]

This is because if a word is pronounced contrary to the way it is first pronounced, it will be treated as another word and not the earlier word. And in a bid to conceal the truth and not to disclose the glad tidings of the coming of the Holy Prophet (), the People of the Book[9] had engaged in contextual distortion. But tarīf in the sense of addition, deletion or changing of words by another set of words which is the technical meaning of tarīf, as can be observed, has not been used in the Qur’an.



[1] Sūrat al-Nisā’ 4:46; Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:13.

[2] Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:41.

[3] Sūrat al-Baqarah 2:75.

[4] Al-Tibyān, vol. 3, p. 470.

[5] Al-Manār, vol. 5, p. 140.

[6] Sūrat al-Nisā’ 4:46; Sūrat al-Mā’idah 5:13.

[7] Al-Kashshāf, vol. 1, p. 633.

[8] Sūrat Āl ‘Imrān 3:78.

[9] People of the Book (ahl al-kitāb): the respectful title given to the Jews and Christians in the Qur’an. [Trans.]

ulumquran2(Excerpt from Muhammad Hadi Ma’rifat, INTRODUCTION TO THE SCIENCES OF THE QUR’AN, Volume 2, trans. Mansoor Limba and Salim Rossier (Tehran: SAMT Publications, 2014))

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