Shortly after reading my article regarding polygamy, a beloved friend of mine (shoutout) maintained that “the responsibility possessing your right hand” should remain “the responsibility your right hand possesses” (translated across all other versions as “what your right hands possess”) because it is grammatically the right hand that is doing the possessing. I could see her perspective, and frankly, she has studied Arabic in greater depth and detail than I have.
But I disagree.
Structurally, the fragment reads word-for-word, “what possessing your right hands” or “mā malakat aymānukum”—there shouldn’t be a dispute that the “what” refers to a responsibility or an oath. It does not refer to directly to women, if the fact that mā means what and not whom weren’t clear. The Qur’an itself provides this antecedent by employing the form l-aymāna (oath) and yamīnuka (rightfully possesses), describing the nature of the “right hand” as responsibility. I feel that this is a crucial point that every exegete has overlooked.
However, translating the structure into English doesn’t require an inversion for its meaning to remain intact, even when Arabic inverts the subject-object orientation. We say things like this English all the time, particularly in modern and even contemporary poetry. Years ago, I penned the line in a poem, “Braves sudden movement, eye to eye.” Simplified, the object is structured as the subject, even though conceptually it is the eye that is doing the meeting.
In fact, since most translations of the Qur’an are not casual English, I find it very interesting that translators choose to invoke the inversion to make the phrase casual (and in their minds, I’m sure, clearer) when that is not its state, rendering it a judgment call and a deliberate decision considering the flexibility of the original phrase in Arabic. It’s true that in English we don’t speak in the language of poetic inversions of casual statements, but neither are Qur’anic English translations informal.
Translating “mā malakat aymānukum” as “what [oath] is possessing your right hands” honors the fluidity of the phrase in Arabic, whereas English interrogates for clarity in the ownership via subject-object orientation, which is already a philosophically imposed assignment. The implications of the oath being the object rather than the subject, particularly when we incorrectly understand mā (what) to mean “women” and not “oath,” are drastically grave in English.
Placing the responsibility as possessing the right hand in English emphasizes women as the entitled subject, rather than men as the entitled subject: you have rights rather than he has control. Arabic, however, lulls of a quality of possessive uncertainty.
I floated this past my love Zeina, a native Arabic speaker. “It’s both right?” I asked her at an obscene hour of the night when she certainly should have been asleep. “It’s more fluid in Arabic whereas in contemporary English it means two very distinct things.”
“Yes it is both. I’ve never thought about it that way. I think both work grammatically.”
Since in the inverted English the ownership is over an oath or promise or responsibility and not women, I’m not married to either structure in translation. In fact, there are also benefits, like the relief of responsibility from the marginalized, when the phrase is structured as the right hand doing the possessing. But in case anyone is married to either, I present this reasoning for my maintaining the Arabic structure in the English translation.