Understanding the Qur’an (Episode 4: Lord of the Worlds)

Quran

There is an interesting phrase that occurs dozens of times in the Qur’an. The phrase, which is used when referring to God, is ‘Lord of the Worlds’.

When I read the Qur’an for the first time, my immediate reaction to this interesting phrase was to wonder whether the phrase referred to God in relation to the bigger picture of the universe — whether it referred to God as Lord of every planet. I felt eager to know whether this was the intended meaning of the phrase, because if it was, it would accord very well with my own philosophical perspective, which is that there is one God who is Lord over the whole universe and the entirety of creation (which I refer to in my books as God’s ‘cosmic playground’).

The first time the phrase ‘Lord of the Worlds’ appears in the Qur’an is in the very first sura, entitled ‘The Opening’. This sura, though very short, is very important to Muslims according to the introductory note written by Abdel Haleem (who is the translator of the version of the Qur’an I use). Haleem writes,

This sura is seen to be a precise table of contents of the Qur’anic message. It is very important in Islamic worship, being an obligatory part of the daily prayer, repeated several times during the day.

p3

So, if the opening sura is considered very important to Muslims, and the phrase ‘Lord of the Worlds’ appears in the opening sura, this would seemingly make the phrase very important indeed to our understanding of the Qur’an and of the faith of Islam.

There is a footnote which accompanies the first use of the phrase ‘Lord of the Worlds’ in the opening sura, which states the following:

Al-‘alamin in Arabic means all the worlds, of mankind, angels, animals, plants, this world, the next, and so forth.

p3, footnote ‘e’

I felt disappointed to learn that, according to Abdel Haleem’s footnote, the phrase does not refer to other planets, but is used in a kind of metaphorical sense to refer to the different ways in which different creatures perceive the world (that is, perceive the one world on which we humans currently live). Putting this disappointment to one side for a moment, I would like to discuss a few things I noticed about the use of the phrase in the Qur’an as a whole that I feel are significant.

An important point which struck me as I was researching for this article is the differing use of capitalisation in Abdel Haleem’s translation when the phrase ‘Lord of the Worlds’ appears. For instance, there are some instances where the phrase appears, but the word ‘worlds’ is NOT capitalised (see, for instance, Suras 5:28, 7:54). In most occurrences of the phrase, the word ‘worlds’ IS capitalised (see, for instance, Suras 6:45, 7:61, 7:67, 26:98). It’s notable that the differences in capitalisation sometimes appear in the same sura, just a few verses apart. I will comment further on the significance of this difference below.

A related matter is that the phrase under discussion appears in three slightly different word formations in Abdel Haleem’s translation: ‘Lord of all the Worlds’ (e.g. Suras 6:162, 7:104), ‘Lord of the Worlds’ (e.g. Suras 6:71, 7:121), and ‘Lord of all Worlds’ (Sura 5:28). I don’t know whether or not there is something in Arabic which distinguishes these three different wordings or whether the difference is a feature of Abdel Haleem’s translation specifically. Similarly, I don’t know whether the capitalisation differences in uses of the word ‘worlds/Worlds’ described above are related to the original Arabic, or are a feature of Abdel Haleem’s translation. It’s possible that the inconsistency in these matters is some kind of error, but it would surprise me if that were the case because of the high regard for accuracy attributed to the Qur’an by Muslims, who believe the Scripture to be a revelation from God, written by Him and perfect in form in the original Arabic.

Interestingly, the phrase ‘Lord of the Worlds’ appears in the Qur’an as direct speech from God, as for instance in Sura 28:30, when God says, “Moses, I am God, the Lord of the Worlds”. The fact that the phrase is quoted as being part of the speech of God to Moses makes it seemingly an especially important phrase and idea, and it’s not a phrase (as far as I’m aware) that appears in the Bible.

In summary, I am feeling eager to know whether Abdel Haleem’s description of what the phrase ‘Lord of the Worlds’ means is generally accepted among Muslims — whether the phrase really does refer to different kinds of perception, as opposed to different physical worlds (or planets). Also, having read through the dozens of appearances of the ‘Lord of the Worlds’ phrase in the Qur’an, I have been unable to reach an understanding of why the word ‘worlds’ is sometimes capitalised in the phrase, and sometimes not. It’s possible that there is a linguistic nuance that I am overlooking or am simply not aware of, but I would appreciate further clarification on this issue.

If anyone reading has knowledge in relation to the matters raised in this article and would like to comment below and offer input or clarification, your thoughts would be most welcome. Thank you for reading.

Also in my Understanding the Qur’an series:
Episode 1: The First Person Plural of Majesty
Episode 2: The Alleged Divinity of Christ
Episode 3: Life as a Game

2 Comments on “Understanding the Qur’an (Episode 4: Lord of the Worlds)

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