Category Archives: Importance of Arabic

Swallow more than your pride.

*Post edited and corrected on 28-10-08

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

It has been narrated that a major scholar of the past [1] used to try and fault the Qur’an by searching for flaws in its language. His attempts and studies lasted months, during which time a group of men would frequent his house and ask him whether he had found anything yet. Eventually, he smashed his ink pot and broke his pen, and replied, “None can dispute that this is the Speech of Allah!” He then left the house and passed by a mosque, from which he heard the voice of a young boy reciting the verse,

وَقِيلَ يَا أَرْضُ ابْلَعِي مَاءكِ وَيَا سَمَاء أَقْلِعِي وَغِيضَ الْمَاء وَقُضِيَ الأَمْرُ وَاسْتَوَتْ عَلَى الْجُودِيِّ وَقِيلَ بُعْداً لِّلْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
And it was said, “O earth, swallow your water, and O sky, withhold [your rain].” And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Judiyy. And it was said, “Away with the wrongdoing people.” (Hood, verse 44)

to which the man remarked, “It is not possible that a human could produce such words.”

The verse in question is one of the most beautiful, eloquent, rhetorical verses of the Qur’an, as the scholars of Arabic balaaghah (rhetoric) identified within it more than twenty-five different rhetorical devices (fann balaaghee) within just 17 words! [2]

When the Prophet (peace be upon him)  would pray in the Ka’bah in Makkah, the Qurayshis would laugh at him, curse him, throw rocks at him, and ridicule him. One day he was sitting with some companions around the Ka’bah and recited to them Surah al-Najm, within earshot of the Quraysh. Everyone listened intently until he (peace be upon him) went on to recite the last few verses of this chapter,

أَفَمِنْ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ تَعْجَبُونَ * وَتَضْحَكُونَ وَلَا تَبْكُونَ * وَأَنتُمْ سَامِدُونَ * فَاسْجُدُوا لِلَّهِ وَاعْبُدُوا

Then at this statement do you wonder? And you laugh and do not weep? While you are proudly sporting? So prostrate to Allah and worship [Him].

By the time this last verse was recited, they all fell involuntarily into prostration as commanded in the verse, mesmerised by the beauty and truth of what they had just heard.


And the conversion story of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab is a well-known one. He was one of the staunchest enemies of Islam, one of the strongest men in Makkah, who was sworn to kill the man who called himself the Prophet of God. Sword in hand, he set about to accomplish the task he had set himself and on the way was asked by a man he passed on the street as to the nature of his mission. When ‘Umar told the man of his intentions, the man told him to worry about his own sister first. In a fit of rage, he went to his sister’s house to kill her first if the news was true. He asked her whether she had accepted Islam, and when she replied in the affirmative he slapped her so hard that blood fell from her face. He noticed some paper in her hand, so he asked her what she was carrying. When she told him she could not give him the papers as he was not pure, he tore them from her hands and began to read the words written on them (listen),

طه * مَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْقُرْآنَ لِتَشْقَى * إِلَّا تَذْكِرَةً لِّمَن يَخْشَى * تَنزِيلاً مِّمَّنْ خَلَقَ الْأَرْضَ وَالسَّمَاوَاتِ الْعُلَى * الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى * لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا وَمَا تَحْتَ الثَّرَى  * وَإِن تَجْهَرْ بِالْقَوْلِ فَإِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ وَأَخْفَى* اللَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا هُوَ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاء الْحُسْنَى

Ta, Ha. * We have not sent down to you the Qur’an that you be distressed * But only as a reminder for those who fear [ Allah ] * A revelation from He who created the earth and highest heavens, * The Most Merciful [who is] above the Throne established*  To Him belongs what is in the heavens and what is on the earth and what is between them and what is under the soil. * And if you speak aloud – then indeed, He knows the secret and what is [even] more hidden * Allah – there is no deity except Him. To Him belong the best names.

Upon reading the words on the paper, ‘Umar’s eyes filled with tears. He demanded from his sister that she tell him where this man Muhammad (peace be upon him) was, and after making him promise not to harm the Prophet (peace be upon him) he set out to find him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) could tell who was at the door from the strength of his knock, so opened the door and greeted his visitor with the words, “Isn’t it about time you became Muslim, O ‘Umar?” to which he received the reply, “I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship other than Allaah, and I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allaah.”

The question that remains to be asked is: What did these men have in common?

The answer (among other things)? They all had a deep, solid, understanding and appreciation of the Arabic language, its syntax, semantics, rhetorical and literary devices, poetry, prose, and all else a mastery of any language entails. An understanding that allowed them to immediately discern that the difference between the speech of God and the speech of His creation is the difference between God and His creation itself. An understanding of the language that allowed them to recognise the truth and submit to it without giving another moment’s consideration to the issue at hand. An understanding that enabled them to recognise the miraculous nature of the Qur’anic text, and use this recognition as a base on which to build their faith.

Perhaps we will never be able to acheive the same appreciation and understanding of the language of the Qur’an as they did, but who can dispute that we owe it to our souls, to our faith, to at least try.

[1] It has been said that he was the well-known Ibn al-Muqaffa’. But the narration appeared without naming the man in  al-Jadwal fee I’raab al-Qur’aan wa Sarfuhu wa Bayaanuhu by Mahmood Safi (6/278).

[2] This is not a suitable place to discuss these rhetorical devices, as a background of balaaghah is first required. But if anyone is versed in Arabic and would like to read more, I recommend them to refer to the book Kifaayat al-Alma’ee Fee Ayat Yaa Ard Ibla’ee by Muhammad ibn al-Jazaree (published by Dar al-Afaq al-Jadidah in Bayrut, 2003), or to refer to Tafseer al-Bahr al-Muheet by Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi.

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A lesson in their stories

islam-lands.jpgal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

لَقَدْ كَانَ فِي قَصَصِهِمْ عِبْرَةٌ لِّأُوْلِي الأَلْبَابِ

Indeed in their stories, there is a lesson for men of understanding. (12:111)

There are a great many examples throughout Islamic classical literature in which the scholars, leaders, and pious men of the past urged and encouraged the Muslims to learn, speak and master classical Arabic, and avoid grammatical mistakes in their speech as much as they were able. The primary reason that drove the scholars of the past to systemize the rules of grammar was the grammatical solecisms (lahn لحن) that were beginning to creep into the tongue of the Arabs, due to the expansion of their borders which led them to mix with non-Arabs and be influenced by their language [among other reasons] and there was a fear that this would lead to an increase in making mistakes when reciting the Qur’an, as had happened in a number of previous cases.

Thus, very early on in the history of Islam we find such examples of encouraging the mastery of Arabic, among which are:

A man went to Ziyad ibn Abeehi and complained to him that his father had died and his brother had taken all the inheritence unlawfully, but made a grammatical mistake in his complaint. Ziyad replied, “The loss you have caused your soul is greater than what you have lost in your wealth.” [1]

It is reported that ‘Umar ibn Yazeed wrote to Abu Moosa al-Ash’ari (may Allaah be pleased with him) and said: ‘Learn the Sunnah and learn Arabic; learn the Qur’aan in Arabic for it is Arabic.’ [2]

According to another hadeeth narrated from ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with him), he said: ‘Learn Arabic for it is part of your religion, and learn how the estate of the deceased should be divided (faraa’id) for these are part of your religion.’ [3]

This trend continued throughout the ages, and with the expansions of the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th Century C.E., solecisms became widespread such that they even afflicted the caliphs and leaders such as ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan and al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi. Language became a measure of status such that a man’s social standing would drop were he found to commit solecisms, to the extent that ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan was once told that he his hair had become gray very early, to which he replied, “It is due to my fear of ascending the pulpit and commiting a solecism during my sermon![4] He used to view solecisms in speech to be worse than ripping apart an expensive and precious garment. [5]

Men were often rewarded greatly for merely being able to speak fluently without mistakes, even if they were undeserving of the reward. For example, the Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azeez used to say, A man may come to me asking me for something he deserves, but if he commits a grammatical error while asking I deny him it, for it makes me feel as though I am nibbling at a peice of sour pomegranate due to my anger at hearing his mistake. Similarly, a man may come to me asking for something he does not deserve, but if he says it with correct speech I grant him it, due to my delighting at the speech I hear from him. [6]

These are but a handful of examples of this nature; the books of classical literature are replete with much more of the same.

It is often said that one of the main benefits of studying history is to learn from the past. May Allaah grant us the insight and wisdom to take heed of what our predecessors urged. Ameen.

[1] ‘Uyoon al-Akhbaar 2/159
[2] and [3] Iqtidaa’ al-Siraat al-Mustaqeem, 2/207
[4] Tarikh Dimishq
[5] Uyoon al-Akhbaar 2/158
[6] al-Addaar p245

In perfect form.

roseal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

One aspect of the miraculousness of the Qur'anic language lies in the precision of its words. As al-Suyuti said in al-Itqaan fee 'Uloom al-Qur'aan,

"It is possible to convey a single meaning with a variety of words, some more expressive than others. Likewise for the two parts – subject and predicate – of a sentence; each may be expressed in the most eloquent manner when taken alongside the other. Thus, it is necessary [in good composition] to consider the overall meaning of a sentence, then to consider every single word that may be used to convey that meaning, and then to use the most appropriate, expressive and eloquent of those words. This is impossible for man to do consistently, or even most of the time, but it is well within the Knowledge of Allaah [whose knowledge is boundless], and thus the Qur'an was considered the best and most eloquent of all speech…"

One example of this usage lies in the morphological forms found in the Qur'an, which will sometimes reflect the deeper meaning of the word itself, and upon reflection it can be found that not a single word in the Qur'an can be changed for another without it affecting the depth of meaning conveyed by the original word.

One example of this is in Yusuf, verse 23:

وَرَاوَدَتْهُ الَّتِي هُوَ فِي بَيْتِهَا عَن نَّفْسِهِ وَغَلَّقَتِ الأَبْوَابَ وَقَالَتْ هَيْتَ لَكَ
And she, in whose house he was, sought to seduce him. She closed the doors and said: "Come, you."

In this verse, Allaah used the verb form ghallaqa غلَّقَto mean 'closed'. Another form from the same root also means 'closed' – aghlaqa أغْلَقَ– yet there is a very eloquent reason for which Allaah used the previous form: the connotations of the pattern followed by the form ghallaqa are ones of repetitiveness and intensity of the action's performance, and thus the word form itself would give the reader who has knowledge of the Arabic language an idea of the intensity of the emotion and desire which drove the wife of al-'Azeez to rush around closing the doors of her house (some mufassiroon (exegetes) commented that there were seven doors that she closed, and hence the form also indicates the repetition of her going to door after door closing it) so she could quickly try to seduce Yusuf. None of this would have been reflected through the use of the alternative word form aghlaqa.

Another example of the same form reflecting repetition is in Surah Aal 'Imraan, verse 3,

نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقاً لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَأَنزَلَ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالإِنجِيلَ

It is He Who has sent down the Book (the Quran) to you (Muhammad SAW) with truth, confirming what came before it. And he sent down the Torah and the Gospel.

Although the English translation reflects no difference in the original words that were used to convey the meaning of 'sent down', a look at the Arabic will show us that the form nazzala نزَّلَwas used in reference to the Qur'an while the form anzala أَنْزَلَwas used in reference to the Torah and the Gospel. The reason for this goes back to the manner of revelation – the Qur'an was gradually revealed in a number of stages that spanned the 23 years of the Prophet Muhammad's (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) Prophethood, as is reflected by the form nazzala which indicates repetition and grauality, while the Torah and the Gospel were revealed to the Prophets Musa (Moses) and 'Eesa (Jesus) at one time, as reflected by the form anzala.

This difference is more beautifully sealed when we look at the first verse of Surah al-Qadr,

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ

Verily! We have sent it (this Quran) down in the night of Al-Qadr (Decree)

In this verse, Allaah has used the verb anzala – which does not reflect graduality – to describe the revelation of the Qur'an, although He previously used nazzala! The reason for this is clear when the word is considered in it's context, as is explained by Ibn 'Abbas and others,

 

"Allah sent the Qur'an down all at one time from the Preserved Tablet to the House of Might (Bayt al-'Izzah), which is in the heaven of this world. Then it came down in parts to the Messenger of Allah based upon the incidents that occurred over a period of twenty-three years.''

Thus, it is clear that this verse is referring to Allaah sending the Qur'an down at one time to Bayt al-'Izzah on Laylat al-Qadr, and not to its gradual revelation to the Prophet; a concept so precisely and beautifully conveyed just through knowing the meaning of the forms used in the original Arabic.

Diving is a skill.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

If Arabic is a sea, then the Qur'an is the most precious treasures, jewels, pearls and gems that can be found in the sea. But reaching these treasures requires a diver skilled in deep thought and contemplation. One of the prerequisites for a diver to reach this level of skill, is a knowledge and understanding of Arabic and its sciences.

In this regard, Ibn Taymiyyaah (rahimahu Allaah) commented,

"Before one can interpret and understand the Qur'an and the Hadith, he must know the denotations and connotations intended by the words of Allaah and His Messenger (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam). How can their words be understood? Knowledge of the Arabic language in which we were addressed will help us to understand what Allaah and His Messenger (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) intended through their words, as will understanding the semantics behind the words and phrases. Truly, most of the misguidances of the Innovators occured due to this reason – they began to misinterpret the words of Allaah and His Messenger (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) claiming that they meant one thing, when really they meant another." [1]

[1] al-Eemaan : 111

Like a building and its foundations.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

The Arabic language no doubt has a special place in Islam because it is the language of the Qur'an, and the importance of Arabic to each Muslim is proportional to their relationship with the Qur'an and how deeply they seek to understand it.

Thus, the Muslim must be vigilant in protecting and preserving the Arabic Language, and this vigilance is related to his vigilance and protectiveness of the religion itself, for one complements the other and strengthens the other, like a building and its foundations.

An argument in favour of Arabic states [1]: Language is a means by which history is manifested and expressed, and history narrates the character of a people and their nation, and a nation may be said to be crafted by its language because it is one of its inherant, natural needs that cannot be replaced by another. And the Qur'an in this regard represents a linguistic nationality that gathers together all the believers in Tawheed, through the Arabic language.

[1] Adapted from the book al-Bu'd al-Deeni li-al-Lughah al-'Arabiyyah wa atharuhaa fi al-Tadaamun al-'Arabi wa al-Islaami by Dr. Muhammad Sikhani, Dar Qutaybah: Beirut, pg 66-68