Monthly Archives: March 2006

Strong words.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

The last post on Ishtiqaaq saw how the scholars of Arabic agreed that words derived from the same [usually triliteral] root share a common meaning among them.

A number of great classical scholars of Arabic such as al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Faraaheedee, Abu ‘Ali al-Faarisi, and his student Ibn Jinni, understood this idea even further and suggested the notion of al-Ishtiqaaq al-Kabeer [1] (‘the Greater Derivation’) wherein they noticed that three letters within a root – regardless of the order in which the letters are arranged – can also be said to share in a common meaning.[2] For example, the roots ب-ر-ج and ب-ج-ر and ج-ب-ر and ج-ر-ب and ر-ج-ب and ر-ب-ج, along with all their derivations, would all share in one central theme or meaning, due to their being composed of the same three letters.

In his book al-Khasaa’is, Ibn Jinni elucidated on this phenomenon, providing detailed descrptions and examples. To continue with the same root mentioned above, Ibn Jinni says that these three letters combined connote the meaning of strength and power, as in:

1. From the root ج-ب-ر:

  • jabartu al-faqeer جبرت الفقير to mean ‘I restored a man from a state of poverty to wealth.’

  • A King is referred to as the jabar جبر due to the strength and power he holds.

2. From the root ج-ر-ب:

  • One says about a man that he is mujarrab مُجَرَّب if he has gone through a trial, and strengthened by his experiences.

  • A jiraab جِراب refers to a case that protects something else (e.g. travelling provisions, or a sword) because when something is protected it is strengthened.

3. From the root ب-ج-ر:

  • A bujr بحر affair is one which is extremely terrible or momentous.

  • The adjective bajeer بجير is used to refer to something in abundant, copious amounts.

4. From the root ب-ر-ج:

  • A burj بُرج refers to a tower or fortress, due to being self-sufficient in its provisions, and power to protect those inside and within.

  • Baraj بَرَج is used to describe an eye in which the black and white parts are extremely strong and pure in their colour.

5. From the root ر-ج-ب:

  • One says rajibtu al-rajula رجِبتُ الرجلَ if they revere a man, honour him, venerate him, and regard him with awe.

  • The seventh month of the Islamic calendar is known as Rajab رجب because the Arabs held this month in such strong esteem that they forbade fighting in this month.

6. From the root ر-ب-ج:

  • The rubaajee رُباجيُّ is a man who is proud and boastful of his actions more than they deserve.

[1] While Ibn Jinni referred to this phenomenon as al-Ishtiqaaq al-Akbar (in the superlative form), it is usually known as al-Ishtiqaaq al-Kabeer (in the elative form).

[2] Note that they acknowledged it could not and would not apply to every root, just as the regular ishtiqaaq

would not apply to every root.


A tree, sent down from above.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

One of phenomena that is immediately noticed among learners of Arabic is that its lexicon resembles a tree wherein some words are built on and branch out from others that usually take the form of tri-consonantal roots. This etymological phenomenon in Arabic is known as al-Ishtiqaaq and there are various theories regarding the complexity of it; this post will cover the aspect that all the scholars of Arabic agree upon completely.

The most well-known example in this is the case of the root letters jeem-noon ج-ن, the general meaning of which indicates something that is concealed or hidden to the eye. From this root branch out the words:

  • jinn جِنٌّ referring to the other form of creation that share the world with us whom are concealed from our sight
  • junnah جُنَّةٌ referring to a shield, for it conceals parts of the user from the sight of others
  • janeen جنين referring to a fetus, which is concealed in the womb
  • the verb ajanna أَجَنَّ referring to the act of concealment, as in the phrase ajannahu al-laylu أجنَّهُ الليلُ meaning ‘he was concealed by [the darkness of] the night.’

A less known antithetical root is that of hamzah-noon-seen ء-ن-س, the general meaning of which indicates something that is clear and plain to the eyes. Words branching from this root include:

  • al-ins الإنسُ referring to the human, because they can be seen (as opposed to the jinn who cannot)[1]

  • The verb aanasa آنَسَ which means to perceive something, as in the saying of Musa (‘alayhi al-salaam) in surah Ta-Ha, verse 10,

إِذْ رَأَى نَاراً فَقَالَ لِأَهْلِهِ امْكُثُوا إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَاراً

When he saw a fire, he said to his family: “Wait! Verily, I have seen a fire!”

  • The verb ista’nasa اِسْتَأنَسَ which means to go out and look for something, i.e. seek that something is made visible to the eyes.

Although this phenomenon existed in the other Semitic languages, it was not to the same depth or breadth as it was in Arabic, and due to this many scholars of Arabic argued that the source of the Arabic language was tawqeefi (i.e. sent down from Allaah), although there was not a consensus on this view.

Those in support of this theory cited as proof the hadith Qudsi, after which it seems little can be said:

أنا الرحمن خلقتُ الرحم وشققت لها من اسمي

“I am The Most Merciful (al-Rahmaan); I created the womb (al-rahim) and derived its name from Mine.” [2]

[1] Note that some linguists argue that this word is derived from another root meaning ‘to forget’ because man is forgetful.

[2] An authentic hadith reported by Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, and Ahmad

There’s always a first.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

Arabic often has the ability to convey a very precise meaning using a single world, due to the richness and breadth of its vocabulary. In line with this, scholars of the language would often compile lexicons based on concepts shared between words rather than alphabetically, and thus the thesaurus genre in Arabic literature could be seen as early as the 9th Century, predating the first English thesaurus by approximately nine centuries.

Early on in his book Fiqh al-Lughah wa Sirr al-'Arabiyyah, al-Tha'aalibee presents an exposition of the words that deals with the 'first of…' matters in Arabic. Among these are:

The first light of the day is known as the subh الصُبح
The first dark of the night is known as the ghasaq الغَسق
The first drizzle of the rain is known as the wasmiyy الوسميّ
The first milk from the udder is known as the libaa' اللِّباء
The first juice extracted from a fruit is known as the sulaaf السلاف
The first faction of the army is known as the talee'ah الطليعة
The first signs of sleep is known as the nu'aas النُّعاس
The first hours of the night are known as the zulaf الزُّلَف
The first signs of water in a well once it has been dug is known as the nabat النَّبَط

The first garment worn by an infant is known as the 'ilqah العِلقة
The first cry of the baby when he is born is known as the istihlaal الاستهلال
The first waste to come out of the child's body is known as the 'iqyu الِعقيُ

A little act that goes a long way.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

One of the issues encountered when translating any text into another language is the extent to which dynamic or formal equivalence should be retained in the translation. One of the levels of connotation lost in translation relates to the semantic function of a word's morphology, and this is especially true when translating the Qur'an into English.

This concept can be further simplified and clarified by mentioning a simple rule in Arabic balaghah (rhetoric): the use of a noun indicates continuity and permanence, while the use of a verb indicates the occurence and regeneration of the act. This can be seen on some levels in English also; ponder the difference, for example, between huwa yata'allam هو يتعلم ('he is learning') and huwa muta'allim هو متعلم ('he is learned'). Both of them refer to the same essence, but the difference is that one connotes more permanence and stability than the other.

When viewed in the context of the Qur'an, the importance of such knowledge is emphasised due to the amount of meaning it conveys to the Muslim. For example, in Surah al-Anfal, Allaah mentions the following verse:

وَمَا كَانَ اللّهُ لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَأَنتَ فِيهِمْ وَمَا كَانَ اللّهُ مُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَهُمْ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ

which is translated into "And Allah would not punish them while you (Muhammad SAW) are amongst them, nor will He punish them while they seek (Allah's) Forgiveness."

Such a translation does not reflect the reality that Allaah articulated the concept of punishment using two different forms of word, one a noun (مُعَذِّبَهُمْ) and one a verb (لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ). Thus, a more correct [albeit more clumsy-sounding] translation would be, 'Allaah would not punish them while you are among them, nor would He be their punisher while they sought His Forgiveness."

And when viewed in light of the connotations of a verb and a noun, the underlying meaning of this verse suggests: As long as Muhammad (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) is among a people, Allaah will not punish them. But since he (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) will only be among them for a short time and will soon pass away, this guarantee against punishment is only temporary (لِيُعَذِّبَهُمْ – verb). However, there is a way that the people can secure a continuous, permanent guarantee that Allaah will not be One who punishes them (مُعَذِّبَهُمْ – noun), and that is by seeking forgiveness from Him, even if they do not do seek the forgiveness constantly and permanently (يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ – verb).

And such is the mercy of Allaah, seen through grammar.

Like a crumbled mountain.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

Many languages of the world contain words that reflect certain concepts that are hard to capture by a single word in any other language. One example is the word 'ilunga' in the Tshiluba language, which means 'a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.' Such words in a language can help us to understand the ideology and culture of its people, and offer insight into their principles and values.

There are many such words in Arabic, especially when it comes to religiously-orientated terms related to subtle inner emotions. One such example is the word khushoo' خشوع. It is normally translated in English Islamic literature as 'submission' or 'humlity', while the English meaning of 'submission', for example, is closer to the Arabic istislaam استسلام. The true meaning of khushoo' is closer to "a state of total humility to the extent of becoming motionless, silent, fearful and subservient. For the Muslim, it carries the sentiments of emotional appreciation of the greatness of Allah, mixed with love, submission and fear." [*] Taaj al-'Aroos speaks about the word khaashi' (the active participle) as referring to a herb that has dried up and fallen on the ground; or a wall that has cracked, and so falls then becomes even with the ground.

Deep knowledge of the precise meanings and connotations of such words is vital to the life of the Muslim. For example, Allaah describes the true believers in the beginning of Surah al-Mu'minoon, one characteristic of whom is,

الَّذِينَ هُمْ فِي صَلَاتِهِمْ خَاشِعُونَ

translated as, "Those who offer their prayers with all solemnity and full submissiveness."

But for the Muslim to take this as their aim in their prayer would be falling behind the mark, because they would not taste the full meaning of how they should be during salaah.

Yet Allaah even gives hints in the Qur'an as to how this should be, by using the same word He used to describe the believers in their prayer, to describe the state of how a mountain would be had it borne the weight of the Qur'an,

لَوْ أَنزَلْنَا هَذَا الْقُرْآنَ عَلَى جَبَلٍ لَّرَأَيْتَهُ خَاشِعاً مُّتَصَدِّعاً مِّنْ خَشْيَةِ اللَّهِ وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

Had We sent down this Quran on a mountain, you would surely have seen it humbling itself and rending asunder by the fear of Allah. Such are the parables which We put forward to mankind that they may reflect. (al-Hashr, 21)

Such is the wonder of Allah's parables, that even though the words used in their translation do not reflect the full depth of meaning of the original word, yet the parable itself connotes the deeper meaning…that the example of the successful believer, when he stands before Allaah in his prayer, is like that of a crumbled mountain.

[*] Taken from Contemplation: An Islamic Pyschospiritual study by Dr. Malik Badri